Handel’s Sosarme at Halle

The curtain rose on the performance of Handel’s Sosarme at Halle. The setting was sordid: a backyard behind a decaying building containing trash and other clutter. On the stage came a group of yobs, yelling and hustling. I inwardly groaned. Was this going to be a typical “German” opera production, eschewing anything nice to look at and perverting the original with overloaded modernist interpretation? The answer was yes – and no. True we had the usual array of upturned tables and chairs and some of the characters were nasty and brutal, but this is a piece primarily about a dysfunctional family and if we are to be engaged in their fate, why not give us a contemporary realistic setting which deals with that problem and to which we can relate?

Indeed the production by Philipp Harnoncourt (son of the recently deceased conductor) was effective because it got to the core of the matter and made one live with the characters and their whims. Nor was there a need to worry about compatibility with Handel’s music. Dealing with brutal dynastic struggles in an ancient society against which a minority strive to reassert harmony and peace, this is highly dramatic, packing an emotional punch, and communicating so much about human values and aspirations that the banality of the text can be ignored. The production also lightened the bleakness and sordidness with ingenuity and humour; and there were some inventive and moving moments as when the obbligato violin soloist came on to the stage to interact with the singer in the midst of her aria, pointing the way to a group of ordinary people who wish to share in the proceedings.

All of this might not have worked so well had not the musical dimension been so impressive. Of course one can expect high standards of Handel performances in Halle, where he was born and the location for an important annual Handel festival. And with that Festival Orchestra, under its director Bernhard Forck, we could not have been in more experienced hands. Their account of the score was truly brilliant. The solo singers, most of them members of the local company, were uniformly excellent, both vocally and dramatically. Invidious to pick out any for special mention; they should simply be listed: Benno Schachtner (Sosarme); Ines Lex (Elmira); Robert Sellier (Haliate); Henriette Gödde (Erenice); Michael Taylor (Argone); Julia Böhme (Melo); Ki-Hyun Park (Altomaro).