Tom Sutcliffe goes to Halle in search of Handel


As a former professional countertenor, I confess there are all sorts of reasons why I do not terribly like the countertenor voice in opera. Of course the male alto belongs in all-male choirs, though a strong line-up of boy altos (as at Westminster Cathedral when I sang there in the 1960s) is a great idea in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century non-English polyphony. My problem is the promotion of countertenors as a substitute for castrati in Handel and other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century dramatic works. For Handel there was no question that countertenors were very inferior to castrati, who could be lower or much higher in their range. In fact he seems often to have been happier with female mezzos singing male roles, which now are often given to countertenors.

I never sang a Handel role on stage, though I loved and worked on many arias. We had to transpose Monteverdi’s Ottone in Poppea up, to enable me to make it effective as a tenor falsettist. In Darmstadt in 1970 our Nero was an American tenor who was the original Lysander in Britten’s Aldeburgh Dream. I held my own judging by the critics, even if my singing was about to be destroyed by the lack of understanding back then of the difference between falsettists according to what their natural voice was. And there is also of course the fact that castrati could push their voices in volume and every other way exactly as women do – because without secondary sexual characteristics they could bring adult strength and dimensions to bear on their vocal organs.

Authenticity is a mere marketing ploy in Handel. A few Handel conductors like the excellent Laurence Cummings (artistic director of Göttingen’s Handel festival) lead often from the keyboard, and only wave their arms and hands about enough to satisfy concert-goers who enjoy watching how maestros wield their power. But it was the soloists, especially castrati and a few select (and ‘difficult’) women stars, who led eighteenth-century baroque opera performances assisted by the leader of the strings. Countertenors – bearded and hairy-chested, however orientated, to assure their public that they are all-male – are a false fix.

Of course, there are other issues with Handel. Like Tchaikovsky he has been recruited as perhaps gay, convicted without evidence apart from not being a Bach-type family man. I went to Handel’s birthplace, Halle, for the first time in May: a modest interestingly historic Saxon town on the Saale river, tributary of the Elbe. Handel’s father’s house is a museum, including a floor devoted to musical instruments including a surprising number of pianos. There was a crop of Handel biographies a few decades back which I read without hoisting in the interesting fact that Handel’s mother was a clergyman’s daughter and his father’s second wife – the first having been quite a lot older than his father at the time. One of the works I enjoyed at the Göttingen Festival was the Brockes Passion – which benefited from a wonderful newish English tenor called Rupert Charlesworth as Peter (and the First Believer), who I had not heard before. It is a much more theological Passion drama than either Bach’s Matthew or John settings. Handel almost certainly knew Brockes at university.

A concert at Göttingen of Handel’s settings of Brockes’ sacred poems was ruined by its taking place in a neoclassical RC church with a terrible obscuring echo; but the Passion setting was superbly done in the large modern Stadthalle. Its pietistic theological comment, intended to provoke one theologically into taking one’s faith more seriously, really made its impact. I know Handel was (in the best sense) patronised during his influential long visit to Rome by a worldly opera-loving cardinal for whom he wrote a good deal. But he did not convert; and the evidence of his English oratorios, especially Messiah, but Theodora too, and even operas like Alcina (which is really Handel’s Tannhäuser, with a strikingly ‘biblical’ understanding of sexual indulgence), on top of his continuing closeness to his mother and his evident Christian sincerity, seems to me to make unreported visits to Molly houses or any pursuit of other sexual experience unlikely.

Visits to opera in the German-speaking world are not always fun, I must say. Nicole Heaston, standing in at a few days’ notice for Kate Royal who had abandoned ship in the title role of Alcina, was astonishingly warm and alluring – and in some ways fitted perfectly into Lydia Steier’s rather Josephine-Bakerish staging, with its 1920s showgirl backdrops. But why did those marooned lovers (who had been turned into animals on Alcina’s island when she had lost interest in them as partners) become a typing pool once they were human again? Alcina is defeated by a faithful wife’s devotion and love. Basel’s La Cetra ensemble, conducted by Andrea Marcon – with various fine singers unknown to me – was well worth the trip, and I wish I had had time for Basel’s wonderful art galleries.

Alas, I was booked to go on at once to Stuttgart, where the new production of Tchaikovsky’s gripping and tragic musical adventure Queen of Spades by the reigning team of Jossi Wieler and his dramaturg co-director Sergio Morabito – who a few months back turned Handel’s Ariodante into a football opera – turned out to have been set in ‘the timeless space of a slum in St Petersburg.’ Of course: so obvious. A note in English explained that ‘contrary to Pushkin, the events in the opera are not realistically-coded. Every character has fallen out of its social context after a catastrophic event. The only “real” thing left is the rampage of the starved student Hermann.’ No army, no nannies, no gambling club for upper-class people, or ball at which the Empress appears. Instead, a bundle of clichés about life, which don’t fit the story. One has to suffer gross stupidity in the cause of art.