Handel in Oxford, University Church, Oxford
Thursday 07 October 2004
Two of England's best early music choirs, Peter Phillips's Tallis Scholars and Harry Christophers's The Sixteen, began in Oxford, taking their spiritual lead from Magdalen College Chapel evensong and revolutionary performances of Sheppard and Tallis by David Wulstan's Clerkes of Oxenforde.
So, for Christophers, the new Handel in Oxford festival - a weekend of "unabashed indulgence" in the Hanoverian stage composer - is something of a homecoming. The Sixteen scintillated with Handel's Dixit Dominus, but the weekend also included a Handel exhibition at the Bate Collection; a masterclass on "trouser roles"; Jonathan Keates's lecture on "Handel in Italy"; and a chamber recital in the Magdalen auditorium embracing Geminiani, Biber and Purcell's younger brother, Daniel.
The curtain-raiser recital by the mezzo Sarah Connolly, fresh from her shattering Dido at the Coliseum, had hearts a-flutter in Oxford's University Church. Christophers' fresh-sounding period orchestra, the Symphony of Harmony and Invention, burst into the flurry of "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba", from Solomon, but this was Connolly's evening. She is unrivalled: simply the best, most exciting, most galvanising performer we have today. No shade-admiring Xerxes or Julius Caesar here, but other roles she has triumphed in, including Ariodante and Ruggiero from Alcina - both from 1735, the tail end of Handel's Italian-opera period - unveiled, with the subtlest of shading, in all their staggering beauty.
If only Handel (who collected his degree on that very spot in 1733) could have heard her; it was perfection. Just to catch her opening "Illustrious Solomon, farewell" (her majesty left as soon as she arrived - but what decorum!), with fused Baroque flute and oboe furnishing a plush obbligato red carpet, made you catch your breath. After a "sleep" interlude that might be the model for Florestan's awakening in Fidelio came Ariodante's grieving "E vivo ancora?", with sympathetic trailing bassoon plus Handel's tortured dwelling on the word "morte". What yearning; what pathos; what character-painting. Handel reiterates text: it's part of his art. But you could hear Miss Connolly intone the word "tradito" or "tornero" a hundred times and there would be a different inflection, half-voice, shading, a fresh way of arriving, every time. Just how many gradations are there between mezzo piano and piano? Lots.
After lulling Handel, lightning struck, as searing "Hyrcanian" (Caspian) tigers unleashed the zippiest coloratura. Only when she dropped her voice for those lowest notes of Alcina's gorgeous "Verdi prati" did we - momentarily - lose her. The rest, especially Dejanira's jagged, guilt-ridden, terrifying accompanied recitative from Hercules - with Furies three in full flight - was unalloyed magic.
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