Early Music Specialist Bridget Cunningham on Re-capturing Handel

More than just costly canaries
April 16, 2019 Updated: April 16, 2019

This year’s London Handel Festival focused on the theme “Handel’s Divas”; yet the word “diva,” in fact, was not used about singers during Handel’s day, and it has come to have rather negative connotations.

As part of the festival, international opera conductor, prizewinning harpsichordist, and early music specialist Bridget Cunningham and her company specializing in Baroque music, London Early Opera, performed on April 11, 2019, with a concert titled “Costly Canaries: Mr. Handel’s Search for Superstars.”

A regular at the festival, Cunningham hoped her concert would debunk some of the myths surrounding Handel’s divas, such as that of Handel threatening to throw Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window when the soprano refused to sing an aria he had written.

In fact, the act of throwing someone out of a window was the punishment for murderers in parts of Germany, and Handel was merely being witty. Cuzzoni did sing the aria, and it even became something of a theme tune for her; she sang it for 30 years.

cariacature of Cuzzoni center
A caricature of a performance of Handel’s opera “Flavio,” featuring the diva Francesca Cuzzoni in the center. (Public Domain)

Cunningham set up London Early Opera as a research-led performing company, and for her the word and deed go hand in hand. As a research-led performer and conductor, her concerts and CDs with London Early Opera always explore the rich vein of music’s background. She hunts for the music herself in libraries because she believes it’s important to go to the original manuscripts. After a time, she says, she’s begun to recognize patterns in composers’ writings.

I met up with her before the concert to chat about her London Early Opera’s festival appearance as well as future plans for more of Handel’s divas.

‘Costly Canaries’

Cunningham’s “Costly Canaries” concert commemorated the 300th anniversary of the founding of Handel’s Royal Academy of Music, one of the most ambitious opera companies of the 18th century. For the venture, Handel recruited singers from operatic centers in Italy and Dresden, Germany, and they turned out to be rather more expensive than the parallel singers in Britain, thus giving the Academy a financial headache.

“Costly Canaries” revealed the sad decline of the Academy because of escalating costs as well as other issues. Then Handel and the impresario John James Heidegger formed the second Royal Academy of Music, and Handel recruited from Italy again.

The concert included images and a narration from Lars Tharp, a former director of the Foundling Museum, who had narrated Cunningham’s concert at the festival in 2018.

The concert introduced three of Handel’s divas, who were played by three singers. Handel met Margherita Durastanti during his Italian sojourn (1707–1710), and she was one of the first singers he recruited for London. Her arias were sung by mezzo-soprano Hannah Poulsom, who is studying at the current Royal Academy of Music (RAM). (The current RAM and Handel’s original have no connection.)

Mezzotint portrait of Anastasia Robinson by John Faber the Younger after the 1723 oil painting by John Vanderbank. (Public Domain)

Anastasia Robinson was the only one of Handel’s opera singers who was English. She was also Catholic, which meant that she was friendly with the Italian singers. Her arias were sung by mezzo-soprano Marie Elliott.

The last of Handel’s divas portrayed in the concert was soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, who was the star of Handel’s second Royal Academy of Music and for whom Handel wrote the title role of “Alcina.” She was played by Anna Gorbachyova-Ogilvie, a finalist in the London Handel Singing Competition.

anna maria strada
Portrait of Anna Maria Strada, circa 1732, by John Verelst. (Public Domain)

Other events touched on in the concert included the death of King George I and the coronation of King George II. Cunningham made use of important research by Professor Colin Timms on the funeral of King George I, who died abroad and did not have a British state funeral. It appears that Agostino Steffani’s “Stabat Mater” was sung at the funeral service. For this reason, a movement from this work was included in the concert, as was Handel’s revision to the march from his opera “Riccardo Primo,” which was used for the coronation of George II.

The narrative of the concert continued with Handel’s move to the theater at Covent Garden, and then his move away from Italian opera and into oratorio. Cunningham aimed to show Handel as a master of reinvention.

The Italian soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò was one of the first of Handel’s Italian singers to perform oratorio. But she also sang major roles in Handel’s Italian opera and the title roles in the oratorios “Deborah” and “Athalia,” thus breaking boundaries between genres.

And Anastasia Robinson broke boundaries too when, as an English singer, she appeared onstage with Italian singers. Opera singers in England were almost always Italian, but Robinson broke the mold. So Cunningham regards it as important that modern-day singers perform both Handel opera and oratorio, whatever their background.

Singing Handel, she believes, is a good foundation for any young singer. “If you can sing Handel, you can sing anything,” she said.

A New Album

Cunningham was always interested in Handel; when she studied the harpsichord, she fell in love with his harpsichord suites and his arias. She quotes Beethoven, referring to Handel as the greatest composer to have ever lived. Handel’s music connects with people, partly through the remarkable range of emotions that he portrays.

Cunningham and London Early Opera will release a new disc in July, a further installment of their Handel series on Signum Classics. This new one is a double CD and will include 15 world premiere recordings. Titled “Handel’s Queens,” it will feature music associated with Handel’s two divas Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. But rather than focusing on the singers’ period in London, the recording will look at their whole lives, from their early careers in Italy to their later, post-London activities.

Portrait of Faustina Bordoni by Rosalba Carriera. (Public Domain)

Cunningham aims to set the record straight about the two and their infamous London fight, which never happened. In actuality, Cuzzoni and Bordoni had performed together before in Italy, where it was quite common to have two divas performing in an opera. The London press made up the story of the rivalry.

What the arias on the disc will show is how extraordinary and versatile each singer was. While each singer had distinctive vocal characteristics, with Handel writing specific arias for each, the repertoire on the disc shows that each must have been quite versatile. Mary Bevan will sing the Bordoni arias, while Lucy Crowe will sing the Cuzzoni ones.

Of course, we can never know quite what Handel’s original singers sounded like, but Cunningham and her performers do their best to re-create their sounds by using the era’s singing treatises to inform their decisions.

And, Cunningham believes that singers had a much greater armory in the 18th century than was believed by 20th-century scholars; the singers likely used portamento and vibrato, for example. The soprano Faustina Bordoni was known for her martellati (strongly accented notes, from the Italian word for hammer) and granite-like tone!

Of course, the original venues would have affected the music as well. For instance, Italian churches, with a prevalence of marble, would have had a very different resonance from German ones made with a great deal of wood.

As with Cunningham’s previous discs in the series, significant booklet notes give full details on the history of the singers and the music.

In the Future

Further ahead, Cunningham has plans for another solo harpsichord disc.

And then, London Early Opera will be continuing its Handel travel series. Having released “Handel in Italy,” “Handel in London,” “Handel at Vauxhall,” and “Handel in Ireland,” the company will be returning to Ireland for a second volume.

It was when Cunningham researched Handel’s Irish visit that her appreciation of the composer deepened. He gave the premiere of “Messiah” at a time when oratorio was going out of fashion in London. And, just before the visit, there had been a devastating frost in Ireland in 1739–40. Handel arranged that one of his concerts would benefit people in debtors’ prison.

Since that first research on Ireland—issued under a different label and re-released on Signum to appear later in the series—Cunningham has created her travel series of CDs looking at Handel’s different musical voyages to create snapshots of his life.

And, of course, London Early Opera and Cunningham plan to perform again at next year’s London Handel Festival.

For further information on the London Handel Festival, see London-Handel-Festival.com

Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article, edited for clarity and brevity, is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.