This autumn, English Touring Opera (ETO) will perform productions of three of Handel’s finest operas – Agrippina, Ottone and Tamerlano – as part of a new Handelfest. The original Handelfest took place in 2009, to mark the 250th anniversary of the British-German composer’s birth.
This new celebration of Handel’s work will tour to venues across England, along with a programme of concerts, recitals and talks, as well as a new opera for children.
Agrippina was the first of Handel’s operas to be composed in the Italian style – his previous operatic compositions had been in the German style. It was written for the 1709-10 Venice Carnevale season and premiered at the city’s Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in 1709.
It wasn’t especially successful and Handel didn’t promote any further stagings. The opera fell out of fashion for the next 300 years. However, it was revived in the 20th century and has since become part of the canon. With a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, it tells the story of Agrippina, the mother of Nero, as she plots the downfall of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the installation of her own son as emperor.
This revival of ETO’s artistic director James Conway’s 2013 production features set and costume designs by Samal Blak and is performed in English.
Ottone, on the other hand, was an enormous success in its time and yet is rarely performed today. It is a fictionalisation of events in the lives of Adalbert of Italy, his mother Willa of Tuscany (called Gismonda in the opera), Otto II and the Byzantine Princess Theophanu, who became Otto II’s wife in a marriage intended to form an alliance between the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires.
The libretto is by Italian librettist, composer and theatre manager Nicola Francesco Haym. The opera was written for the Royal Academy of Music’s fourth season and premiered at London’s King’s Theatre in 1723.
Another revival of a Conway production, this time from 2014, this version by ETO features Byzantine-inspired designs by Greek performance designer takis, and is sung in an English translation by Andrew Porter.
The final opera in the Handelfest programme is a new production by Conway. Tamerlano tells the story of the eponymous emperor of the Tartars. He has defeated and taken prisoner the Turkish sultan Bajazet. Although betrothed to Irene, princess of Trebizond, Tamerlano falls in love with Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter, who secretly loves and is loved by Andronico, a Greek general and ally of Bajazet.
The libretto was also provided by Haym and the opera again premiered at the King’s Theatre, a year after Ottone.
Music for Handelfest comes from ETO’s period orchestra partner, the Old Street Band.
Each of these three productions for the festival premieres at London’s Hackney Empire before touring to venues around England. Ottone is first, opening on 1 October. This performance is conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny – also a countertenor particularly known for his interpretations of Handel’s compositions.
Agrippina opens on 7 October and is conducted by Leo Duarte, an oboist specialising in English Baroque music. Tamerlano premieres on 8 October and is conducted by ETO’s musical director Gerry Cornelius, who only took up the position last year.
Tickets for these performances are on sale now. They cost £10-37 and each show lasts around 3 hours, with a 20-minute interval.
Following the London performances, Handelfest will tour to selected venues in England. Location and date information are available from ETO; cast details are yet to be announced.
A revival of James Conway’s 2014 production of Handel’s Ottone, a tale of an emperor and his bride kept apart by court intrigue and the workings of fate, is one of three operas featuring in this autumn’s Handelfest.