thu 24/04/2014

theartsdesk in Göttingen: Handel Festival 2012 | Opera reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Göttingen: Handel Festival 2012

Young performers and Europe's oldest early music festival make for an energetic combination

Scotland by way of Alexander McQueen: Göttingen's Amadigi offers authentiity with attitude

Other towns may choose national heroes as their emblems – posing generals, politicians or sword-wielding officers on horseback, glaring sternly down from their plinths – but not Göttingen. It is entirely in keeping with the unassuming, unobtrusive loveliness of this small town in Lower Saxony that its symbol should be not a grandee but a goose-girl.

The delicate art nouveau statue of the young girl and her feathery charges that tops the fountain in the market square (pictured below) is the heart of the town, kissed in ritual celebration by every graduating doctoral student. But while students and the life of the celebrated university (home to over 40 Nobel Prize-winners during the past century) dominate Göttingen most of the year, for 10 days every spring the town is taken over by visitors from across the world, the ever-growing audience for Göttingen’s annual Handel Festival.

Sigrid T'Hooft's Amadigi offers the illusion of taking a trip into Handel’s own performing past

The oldest ongoing early music festival in Europe, the Göttingen Handel Festival survived even the Second World War, as a faded opera poster from the 1945 season proudly testifies. Newer rival festivals may have sprung up in Handel’s nearby birthplace of Halle as well of course as London, but there remains an energy and an intimacy to Göttingen that sets it apart as the festival’s new musical director Laurence Cummings explains.

“Göttingen has such a wonderful family feeling," he says. "Suddenly the whole city becomes Handel-mad; the shop windows are all filled with Handel displays, and there’s the sense that everyone is very honoured to host the festival. It’s a great atmosphere for making music.”

This season marks Cummings’s debut as musical director, the third British conductor in a row to hold the appointment, following John Eliot Gardiner and Nicholas McGegan. Despite the natural ties between England and Handel, it was a role Cummings (already director of the London Handel Festival) hadn’t expected to gain. With two major celebrations approaching in 2014 (for the anniversary of the Hanoverian Succession) and 2020 (to mark the festival’s own 100th anniversary) Cummings’s major focus in his new post is to ensure a performance of all Handel’s 47 operas by 2020 – a goal that will incorporate major works alongside some seldom-heard rarities.

Traditionally the festival has been unified each year around a different theme or motto, a practice Cummings fully intends to continue – with a slight difference. “While Handel will continue to be the festival mainstay”, he explains “our programming will hopefully begin to broaden its outlook on the composer. It’s always interesting to think laterally, to put music alongside quite different music and see how that juxtaposition changes your view of the Handel we know and love already.”

This year’s theme of “Love and Jealousy” however sits squarely in Handel heartland, opening with Handel’s first English oratorio Esther with its persuasive and seductive heroine (not forgetting the jealous Haman) and closing with Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, described by Cummings as “one of the greatest stories for both love and jealousy of all time”. The centrepiece however is a fully-staged production of Amadigi, mounted in Göttingen’s demure Deutsches Theater.

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