Göttingen is by no means without competition in the field of Handel festivals; the London Handel Festival shares their artistic director with Göttingen and the nearby Halle Festival has the obvious boast of being the birthplace of the great composer. Yet, Göttingen are not worried or threatened by such competition; indeed, they have no need to be, because it is a number of unique qualities that distinguish it from other Handelian celebrations which make it a joy to attend.
The first of these qualities is the most obvious to festival visitors – it is the city itself. Although a city, it has the feeling of a small, friendly village. With bright and sunny inhabitants and weather (most of the time, at least!), it’s so easy to feel welcome and at ease in this verdant university town. During festival time, a festival centre with shop and a bustling café becomes the focus of social meetings in between events, with audience members and performers all communing in this cheerful venue.
The second aspect that makes this festival stand apart from others is the emphasis upon internationality. The word ‘international’ is not arbitrarily included in the festival title, it is an integral part of each festival. This is not only demonstrated through their internationally eclectic mix of top rate soloists (no doubt partly due to the relatively new artistic director Lawrence Cumminigs), but also their festival orchestra, established by Cummings’ predecessor Nicholas McGegan, which reconvenes each year and consists of players from all over the world. It always shows – through both their manner and musical performance – that they genuinely enjoy coming together for the festival, and that positivity is in turn absorbed by the festival audience.
The festival runs for 11 days, with performances of varying scales taking place in the city, as well as an increasing number in regional venues. Transport runs to and from the city, allowing easy access to the concerts, as well as a chance to take in the surrounding countryside. The main focus, however, is on the Handel opera production, musically directed for the first time this year by Cummings. Performed in the luxurious, intimate surroundings of the Deutsches Theater, Siroe, Re di Persia helped to establish this year’s theme of ‘Orient’, although more in name than in design and staging. Despite a more British feel to some of the décor on the (most effective) revolving stage, managing director Tobias Wolff explained that the approach deliberately avoided any clichés, instead studying the dynamics within modern-day famous eastern families and using this as an model, given the prominence of family as a theme in the opera’s narrative.
The opera, first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in February 1728 is fairly recitative heavy, but contains some dramatic orchestral writing and some beautifully emotive arias. Stage direction from Immo Karaman created a performance that captured the attention with intelligent use of the revolving stage and the introduction of an extra character (Bettina Fritsche) – a silent dancing house servant who appears alone at the opening and closing of the performance. A figure of mystery, the audience is left to decide her significance, but she seems to act as a symbol of witness – the chorus, the people, perhaps a visual commentary on events.
The cast line-up was strong, with powerful performances from Lisandro Abadie as Siroe’s father and the King, Cosroe, and the emotionally unstable Laodice (sung by Aleksandra Zamojska) – Cosroe’s mistress who is also madly in love with Siroe. It’s worth mentioning the astounding number of costume changes Laodice underwent – I was told that six people were backstage purely to help with these changes, once of which happened in 30 seconds.
Yosemeh Adjei gave a commanding performance as the protagonist, sustaining well the emotional demands of this role and executing some captivating arias. However, for me, the stand-out performance of the evening was from Anna Dennis as Emira. Every aria sung with a sweet, silky tone and beautifully inventive ornamentation which won over the audience. Dressed as a man and posing as the invented character of Idaspe for most of the opera, Dennis also maintained convincing male mannerisms throughout. Communication and unity of performance between singers and orchestra was demonstrated well throughout, most especially in Dennis’ aria ‘Sgombra dell’anima tutto il timor’. This is indicative of the cohesive nature of the production as a whole – music and action worked perfectly together, making a production that was a joy to watch.
The following evening took place in the much larger and less visually appealing Stadthalle. (That said, still a valuable performance space for a small city such as Göttingen.) The concert was a recital of arias from Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. The programme itself was a slight departure from the usual Göttingen material – with an emphasis on late Renaissance/early baroque arias from Rossi, Cavalli and Monteverdi. In fact, Handel didn’t appear until the encores (of which there were at least four – I lost count in the end).
It can’t be denied that von Otter is an entertainer; her communication with the audience throughout greatly endeared her to them (all in German, though, which I think is perfectly acceptable, but did provoke some complaints from some international visitors). Her strong connection with the audience was further established with her encore performance of a song very close to the city’s heart: ‘Göttingen’. The song has a delightful story, being written by Barbara, a famous French singer who at first refused to visit the city to perform because of the terrible effect of World War II upon her family and her country, but then eventually went and was so struck by the experience, she wrote this beautiful song:
I’m told that this song did more for international relations post-war than almost anything else and is very well-known in France, although less-so in Germany; it’s certainly a beautiful song and a fascinating story – a winning choice for von Otter.
Despite the warm reception she received, I have to say it didn’t have quite the same effect on me. Perhaps it is the width of the hall rather than the size, but I felt myself yearning for a closer environment to truly appreciate the recital. Additionally, I felt a smaller venue would have helped the atmosphere of the performance which, with extensive use of copies, gave the feeling of witnessing a rehearsal. That said, the recital did also introduce a wonderful new Swedish soprano whom I have not heard before – Elin Rombo. Her bright and lustrous tone did well to support von Otter and was very well-received by the audience.
My final evening in Göttingen was spent at a concert performance of the infrequently performed Joseph and his Brethren. Like many others, I was left wondering why this isn’t performed more often, with its very familiar story line (in part thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber, although I’m not sure Handel would appreciate the comparison!) and some delightful music. The role of Asenath, sung by Elizabeth Watts, doesn’t add much to the plot but holds most of the most fantastic arias in the piece. Watts was a fine choice for the role, offering fine, clear diction throughout and – despite a few tricky moments – negotiated this virtuosic writing with great verve, much to the pleasure of the audience.
Tim Mead as Joseph and Robert Sellier as Simeon and Judah also gave notable performances, with especially convincing character portrayal from Sellier. The chorus (NDR Choir) and festival orchestra also gave rousing performances, with some spirited choral singing and energised, precise playing, all brought together by Laurence Cummings from the harpsichord.
Göttingen Festival has always been lucky in having inspirational and influential figures at the helm, with Nic McGegan and Eliot Gardiner among their previous artistic directors. It seems they’ve been equally lucky securing Laurence Cummings in the role now; not only is he clearly warmly accepted by festival regulars and locals, he has the connections to put together a fantastic programme of internationally renowned performers and a relentless energy that supports this most special and unique of Handel Festivals – get there next year if you can, I can promise you won’t regret it!