Cambridge Handel Opera stages Atalanta
Cambridge Handel Opera takes to the stage with its 15th production, Atalanta, between April 30 and May 4 at West Road Concert Hall.
Founded in 1985 by Dr Andrew Jones, an expert in 17th and 18th century music at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge Handel Operapresents fully staged productions of Handel operas in English on a biennial basis.
Handel’s enchanting pastoral opera includes all the hallmarks of his style – lightness, energy, humour and passion – culminating in a jubilant celebration once the course of true love finally runs smooth.
With a plot rich in disguise, flirtations leading to misunderstandings, heartbreak and high emotion, Atalanta is a must-see for all fans of Handel. Accessible and varied in its music and mood and lively in its presentation, it is also a great choice for those seeking new theatrical experiences.
Torn between two worlds – her royal responsibilities at court being at odds with a free-spirited single woman devoted to physical pursuits and attracted to the freedom of forest and field – the feisty Princess Atalanta has escaped to the forest to live as a huntress. Smitten King Meleagro will do anything to win her affection, even disguising himself as a ‘lowly’ shepherd. When the royal pair gets mixed up in the romantic tribulations of a real shepherd and shepherdess, comedy and heartbreak inevitably ensue.
Composed by Handel to celebrate the marriage of Frederick Prince of Wales to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in 1736, Atalanta has only been staged a handful of times since the eighteenth century. A hallmark of Cambridge Handel Opera’s stagings, spanning almost 30 years, has been the attention to historical detail. Productions are performed in a style musically and visually sympathetic to the original productions of Handel’s time, rich in expressive gestures.
Dr Jones explained: “The essence of our productions is that they are performed in a style that respects the composer’s intentions and expectations in both the musical and the visual aspects of the production.
“So far we have presented 14 of Handel’s operas, some in their original form for the first time since the 18th century. We have also over the years introduced our audience to some of Handel’s less familiar operas, such as Atalanta. It is a true masterpiece, but very few people know this.”
“I was particularly delighted to engage Victoria Newlyn as our stage director, whose outstanding skill and imagination were distinctly apparent as our movement advisor for the CHO production of Ariodante in 2009.”
Newlyn joined the Guildhall School in 2005 and also leads performance studies and historical dance sessions for the Department of Historical Performance. With numerous accolades in choreography and movement direction for Opera Holland Park, British Youth Opera and Royal Academy of Music where she also teaches, Newlyn’s direction brings sensitivity, pathos and humour to this exquisite setting of Atalanta.
“Atalanta is an absolute gem of a piece, featuring sublime, witty and heart-breaking music which should not be missed,” said Newlyn. “The plot revolves around a quartet of entangled lovers in a charming pastoral setting, with much disguise and misunderstanding along the way. To cap it all, there’s a visitation from Mercury, dressed in full (mad!) Baroque splendour, much to the confusion of the shepherds. Atalanta’s fear of losing her freedom and her ‘self’ struck me as something which feels very credible, very human and somehow very modern.”
The myth of the huntress Atalanta, whose hand was finally won by the only suitor able to outpace her in a race, was first recounted by Ovid around 1-8 AD. Such concerns about the constraints imposed by marriage persist in Handel’s telling of the tale; Atalanta’s inner struggle with her feelings for the hero and concerns about losing her freedom, initially prevent the relationship from being resolved.
Tom Oldham the set designer added: “Atalanta has been a fascinating project from a design perspective. A piece written in the pastoral convention, its characters inhabit the world of Arcadia – a classical idea much explored in Baroque art – a world of shepherds and shepherdesses and their seemingly trivial shenanigans in a beautiful natural paradise.
“However into this light and frothy world, Handel inevitably brings depths of emotion and Atalanta is a complex and torn personality, caught between two worlds – those of her responsibilities as a royal at court and those of a free-spirited single woman devoted to physical pursuits and attracted to the natural freedom of forest and field.”
The production is fully staged with a terrific cast, accompanied by a superb baroque ensemble under the baton of Dr Andrew Jones, the creator of this new English translation.
Sarah Power stars as the eponymous heroine, delivering a dazzling vocal display that captures her anguish and subsequent elation once she accepts the advances of King Meleagro. A finalist of The Ferrier Singing Competition and Handel Singing Competition in 2010, Power is a force that will surely take the baroque scene by storm. Earlier this month she was invited to perform to Placido Domingo at The Mansion House in London.
South African Erica Eloff, winner of the 2008 Handel Singing Competition, gives a commanding performance as Atalanta’s love interest. Eloff’s stunning vocal athleticism finally captures Atalanta’s heart after proving himself her equal.
• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Placido Domingo with Sarah Power