Giove in Argo, Göttingen International Handel Festival

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There is no shortage of Handel operas, yet the reconstruction of a lost one is big news. Germany’s sometime rival Handel festivals in Göttingen and Halle have teamed up to present in concert the newly reassembled Giove in Argo (Jupiter in Argos), which will also be heard at the Herrenhausen palace near Hanover. Giove was a sure bet to give pleasure, since it dates from the twilight of Handel’s opera career and recycles one choice aria after another. But as such it is a pasticcio, a form born more of expediency than of genuine inspiration, or so the theory goes. Handel apparently thought otherwise, but for good measure included here a significant amount of fine new music. And with his shift to oratorio coming, Giove is strong in choruses.

This opera long frustrated Handel scholars because much of it was known to survive, yet crucial elements – including two arias and much of the secco recitative – remained missing. The American scholar John H Roberts found the missing arias (by the Italian composer Francesco Araia) in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum and prepared an edition, for which he composed new recitatives for those missing. The music is strung on a bucolic plot involving a familiar baroque-opera subject: Jupiter’s lust for mortal females. Here the chief god pursues two earthlings, Iside, daughter of the slain king Inachus, and Calisto, daughter of Inachus’s killer. The hostile relationship of the women ripples through the tangled plot. What was left unanswered in this vivid performance from Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco is whether the arias really benefit from the plot, which has an unusually lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tone. Finding the right element of humour without mocking the music would be tricky, but worth the effort.

After a slow start, marred by some wayward horn-playing, the performance found its stride. Laura Cherici, as Calisto, revelled in her virtuosic arias (including a gem from Alcina), while Mary-Ellen Nesi’s rich mezzo made a compelling case for the Araia arias. Theodora Baka held her own brilliantly as Diana, and Zachary Stains imparted swagger to Jupiter. The bass Vito Priante excelled as Iside’s lover Erasto. With any luck we’ll be encountering these characters again.

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