Festival theme

The festival theme

“The Opera: Dispute over Tweedledum and Tweedledee”

The Handel Festival in Halle an der Saale in 2023 will be on the theme “The Opera: Dispute over Tweedledum and Tweedledee”. The quotation from an epigram by John Byrom in The London Journal of 5 June 1725, refers to the competition between the opera composers Giovanni Bononcini and George Frideric Handel. The subject is intended to accentuate the fact that opera has always been the topic of discussions in which cultural-political and artistic interests have been intertwined.

This is certainly true for the two opera academies of which, and in which, Handel was in charge of between 1719 and 1734, and which were followed by the competition between the “Opera of the Nobility” and Handel’s work at the Covent Garden Theatre until 1737. These disputes happened at almost all levels of opera production, and links to comprehensive political-cultural and social negotiation processes become evident: this applies to the organization, patronage and financing of the academies. Such differences applied also to the audience, the public review, the choice of repertoire and libretti, the singers, the scenarios and stage designs, and the compositions themselves.

Thoughts on the theme of the festival

The tradition-rich opera business has also experienced historical crises. Not even 50 years ago, for example, the renowned composer and conductor Pierre Boulez demanded in an interview in "Der Spiegel": "Blow up the opera houses!", with which he particularly delivered a funeral oration on modern opera, but beyond that also questioned the opera system itself.

George Frideric Handel repeatedly faced great challenges in establishing Italian opera in England. His first opera for London, "Rinaldo", written in 1711, did indeed attract extraordinary interest from the English public and press. Nevertheless, the first criticism of opera was soon voiced, for example that this genre led a ridiculous hermaphroditic existence, was written in a language that no one understood, and was also far too expensive. Over the next 30 years, Handel repeatedly tried to convince the English of the opposite. From the mid-1720s, an additional problem arose for him: Opera lovers divided into two camps - much to the gloating delight of opera opponents - and argued fiercely about whether Handel's operas or those of Giovanni Bononcini were the better ones. The result was a musical showdown and an open rivalry between the two composers. A contemporary, ironic epigram by the poet John Byrom, which inspired the motto of the Handel Festival 2023, bears witness to this:

"Some say, compar'd to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle
Strange all this Difference should be
Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!"
- John Byrom - Epigram on the Feuds Between Handel and Bononcini -

While the Royal Academy, the first London opera company for which Handel worked from 1719 onwards, favoured operas in the grand heroic style in its choice of pieces - as can be observed for "Giulio Cesare" in 1723/24 and still subsequently for "Lotario" in 1729 - a particular willingness to experiment is noticeable in the season designs of Handel's subsequent opera companies. For the composer had to react if he wanted to regain the interest of the London public in Italian opera after the Royal Academy was dissolved in 1728 following economic failures. Thus, in addition to non-heroic material and operas which, as in the case of "Orlando" (1732/33), were "on the threshold of comic opera" (Silke Leopold), English-language oratorio, among others, also found their way into the theatre season plans. Furthermore, various opera pastiche were performed, including "Alessandro Severo" (1738). However, all these measures could not prevent Handel's last Italian operas from being only moderately successful with audiences in London. This was also the case with the now very popular opera "Serse", which was cancelled after its premiere on 15 April 1738 after only 5 performances. Handel's efforts to establish Italian opera firmly in London society despite all resistance had thus failed by the early 1740s. The composer wrote no more operas in the years that followed, concentrating instead on English-language oratorio.

The majority of the opera titles mentioned above will be performed at the Handel Festival 2023, so look forward to an exciting journey through Handel's 30 years of operatic life in London, with all its highs and lows, performed by very renowned interpreters of baroque music and important cooperation partners. Handel's operas are firmly anchored in the repertoire of theatres today. It is difficult for us to comprehend the resistance against which the composer had to fight.

With this thematic focus, looking back on Handel's time, we also want to stimulate a discourse in the present about the form in which opera continues to be an attractive form of artistic expression. On the one hand, this debate is already being conducted by part of the audience, especially by visitors who reject modern director's theatre with reference to the lack of "faithfulness to the original". On the other hand, it also has a cultural-political dimension, when one examines the question of which social target groups opera should address and in what form the public sector should participate in its financing.