Tom Sutcliffe explores some Handel


Back from the Handel Festival in Göttingen, where my son Walter directed the opera this year – Rodrigo, written when Handel was 22 and replete with marvellous music of which quite a bit he re-used in Agrippina and Rinaldo a few years later.

I wrote my first music review when I was not a lot older for Music & Musicians magazine which I subsequently edited for 30 issues after my singing career took a nosedive following my departure from Westminster Cathedral where I was sole countertenor for almost four years. I of course cannot write about my son’s work, though I would want to praise the singers and especially Erica Eloff in the title role who gave the most brilliant masculine performance I have ever heard or seen from a woman, sounding perfectly like a counter-tenor (or perhaps what a castrato was really like) – so much so that Meredith my wife did not realise it was not a man singing. And the other two female singers, Fflur Wyn and Anna Dennis were also thrilling as was the tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado. Casting is crucial of course in opera, alongside conducting (here supplied beautifully by current Göttingen artistic director and leading Handelian Laurence Cummings). But in its way just as wonderful a thrill was the playing in the fine neo-classical university Aula of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin performing with immaculate perfection and without conductor (the ultimate authentic period touch) all six Handel Concerti Grossi along with refreshing brief interludes from Telemann’s Canons mélodieux. I heard these players on the BBC and was impressed. But in the flesh they are simply transfiguring and alongside the opera reminded one of the fabulous essence of Handel’s spell-binding genius ultimately lavished on London.

Sadly, there was as far as I could tell no British newspaper critic attending the festival this year. Shirley Apthorp, the best opera critic around writing in English from Berlin for the Financial Times, had planned to be at the Rodrigo premiere – but cancelled Deutsche Bahn trains made her journey from a conference in Holland impossible. Having been an opera critic since soon after I made my opera debut in Darmstadt in 1970, being able to commission myself as editor of M&M  to take a fresh and frank line about revivals at Covent Garden, and having been President of the Critics’ Circle almost a decade ago, I find the collapse of music reviewing even in serious newspapers extremely depressing. Critics can launch themselves as bloggers easily these days. But what I miss is the kind of “arts-page” contextual handling of reviews alongside relevant feature material which was a mark of The Guardian in the 1970s and 1980s – and in my view very beneficial for broad-minded civilised readers.

The rot in my view set in because of music-loving editor Alan Rusbridger’s untimely and foolish decision to switch the printed appearance of the paper from broadsheet to so-called Berliner format – halfway between broadsheet and tabloid. The financial consequences do not seem to have occurred to him – namely that printing in a unique format implied totally independent financial responsibility (bound to be a severe challenge for a lefty “liberal” paper. And the inevitable eventual but delayed move to basic tabloid format simply made everything worse – as it has with The Times too. Evidently it never occurred to Rusbridger, who owed his first contact with The Guardian to me, that the constraints of a page-size for the product would have overwhelming power and influence over commissioned and published lengths of articles including reviews, even though online availability of readable copy was completely unconstrained in length – and Rusbridger’s justifiable claim to fame and regard is that he got the investment in online publication of The Guardian completely right, while again failing to provide a really viable financial model for the paper as it has spread across the English-speaking world and begun to be appreciated to a serious extent in the USA and Australia, which it never could be (except as Guardian Weekly) before. The model that now saves the paper from bankruptcy is simply donations from supportive readers!

But perhaps it is not only the length of reviews that has suffered from the internationalisation of The Guardian, and of journalism generally. Perhaps arts editors find the process of selection simply too awkward to deal with. In the Financial Times where I can read and enjoy Shirley Apthorp, there is only one regular music critic Richard Fairman, who is indeed invariably true to his name and seldom writes with any ferocity at all (however deserved it might be). But a newspaper needs to review the live performing arts that have some relevance to the life being led by its readers. If too many live performance reviews are of events and productions they will never be able to experience, the readers may simply give up reading. I like Shirley’s writing because I have seen and reviewed a lot of opera in the German-speaking world which is indeed the operatic workshop of the whole world, unrivalled in range and quantity of performances and stemming from the almost 100 contracted and full-time opera companies still properly subsidised in that world.

I am not suggesting that my interest in opera is in any sense “normal”. My book on the theatrical side of operatic interpretation Believing in Opera is unique. There has never been an attempt by a critic to write about the theatrical interpretation aspect of operatic performance. Being an opera critic with particular ideas was the fundamental drive behind my book. My wife Meredith Oakes is a successful opera librettist (of Thomas Ades’s The Tempest for example). Our son Walter is a successful director of opera productions, now also artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera (with its tiny £559,000 annual subsidy). We could be said as a family to be “over-invested” in opera. And proud of it!