Since my sister and her husband are living in Hamburg until the end of June, I pounced on the opportunity to visit them again plus attend my first Händel-Festspiele in Halle (Saale), the composer’s birthplace. My fantastic week there included some of the most exhilarating and nourishing music-making I’ve heard in a very long while.

When I first became interested in opera—around the sixth grade or so—I was immediately drawn to classical and pre-classical works. Beyond Mozart, I wasn’t getting them from the Met broadcasts I listened to every Saturday, so I diligently scoured the downtown library’s huge LP collection. Soon my two favorite recordings became the Julius Rudel Giulio Cesare and Glyndebourne’s Leppardization of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. My irresistible attraction to “early opera” has stayed with me to this day.

Soon after I got my reel-to-reel tape machine and began buying pirates and broadcasts, I discovered the Göttingen Handel Festival which in 1920 began the 20th century Handel revival with its production of Rodelinda. I relished Göttingen broadcasts of rarities like Sosarme and Riccardo Primo in German, but I didn’t hear about Halle until years later. Though Göttingen has in recent years released its featured opera on CD, Halle tends to have a more modest international profile though the scope of its offerings far exceeds that of its nearby neighbor.

This year’s Halle festival was fancifully dubbed “Oh La La! Händel? – Französische Inspirationen” and ran from 24 May until 9 June. Sometimes the French connection was slight to say the least, but the imaginative programming brought together some of the world’s finest performers. The 64-page festival booklet listed as many as nine events per day ranging from tours and lectures to events for families, in addition to the many musical performances which took place throughout Halle as well as in neighboring towns like Bad Lauchstädt and Bernberg for which inexpensive bus transportation was available.

I might have attended many more offerings than I did, but I eventually settled on just three oratorios, two operas and three vocal concerts performed in six attractive venues scattered around Halle’s sometimes treacherous cobblestone streets. The Altstadt is charming with a sprawling central square where one finds both a centrally placed statue of Handel and a very nice TK Maxx. I occasionally got lost especially at night in the twisty streets heading to or from the many auditoria.

A particular joy was to hear live for the first time so many singers I only knew from recordings or broadcasts. The sweet Canadian soprano Stefanie True with La Sfera Armoniosa performed two early cantatas in “Händel in Rom.” True performed without a score which gave both “Clori, mia bella Clori” and “Armida Abbandonata” an exciting immediacy. The seven-member group was led by Mike Fentross whose forthright theorbo-playing dominated her accompaniment. Keeping with the French theme, a serenely pregnant Sophie Junker repeated her program (available on an essential CD) devoted to music written for or sung by one of Handel’s final muses, French soprano Elisabeth Duparc aka La Francesina. Junker’s ravishing, agile voice, backed by Le Concert de l’Hostel Dieu, positively glowed in eight opera and oratorio arias capped by a gorgeously spun encore of “Lascia ch’io pianga.” It was just one of the many times I left a theater blissed away by what I’d heard.

But the most gratifying solo concert was “La Tempesta d’Amore,” my first Halle show, when I got to hear the great Italian soprano Raffaella Milanesi for the first time in over two decades. One of the most stimulating concerts I’ve attended featured Milanesi with Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques in 2003 at Paris’s Citê de la Musique where they presented rare early classical arias written for castrati.

She was fantastic then, a time when she starred in a number of fine baroque opera recordings. Milanesi hasn’t been in the limelight much recently, so I feared she was no longer singing well. She began an aria from Riccardo Primo in cloudy voice, but her uniquely rich soprano sounded as if no time had passed at all in a cantata by Alessandro Scarlatti. But the highpoint of the afternoon was her transfixing rendition of Handel’s “Qual ti riveggio” for which she tossed aside her score and forged an exceptional collaboration with G.A.P. Ensemble’s colorfully-named cellist Oriol Aymat Fustê. Their divine B section of the cantata’s second aria made me feel that I was meant to be in Halle! Her encore, a subtly seductive “V’adoro pupille” from Giulio Cesare crowned a perfect first Halle afternoon.

But an even more perfect evening followed when Solomon’s Knot presented at the Dom au Halle its inspired version of Esther, Handel’s first English oratorio. The English collective’s ten vocalists shared the solo roles as well as the stirring choral numbers. Once again performing without scores, the singers seamlessly moved in and out of their duties in a simple but effective semi-staging that achieved a most moving intensity. No conductor led the small, excellent period ensemble, but bass singer Jonathan Sells was credited as conductor. Just as I had marveled that six singers could so effectively handle several Esther choruses at a recent Opera Lafayette concert, Solomon’s Knot’s ten soloists accompanied by its stylish small period-instrument band (featuring a phenomenal oboist) made a triumphantly mighty sound that made the strongest case for an unjustly neglected oratorio and convinced me it’s a true Handel masterwork.

Several days later we heard at the Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche Athalia, another early oratorio, which like Esther, is adapted from a play by Jean Racine. Philipp Ahmann’s big approach lacked the dramatic impact of Esther but offered many musical delights, particularly from its vocal soloists. Alex Potter, Benjamin Hulett, and Edward Grint came across as experienced Handelians, but it was the two ladies who made the evening particularly special.

Anna Dennis as the saintly Josabeth endowed her lovely music with sounds of unearthly beauty. It was difficult to believe her arias and duets with Potter had ever been more gorgeously sung. As the evil title character, Swiss soprano Marie Lys embraced her villainy with a fierceness that sometimes threatened to go over the top—but didn’t. She added extreme ornaments to her arias that scaled the upper heights of her voice to its harshly scary depths.

Ahmann’s Leipziger Barockorchester played adeptly if without the spirit and bite of Solomon’s Knot’s much smaller band. The nearly forty voices of the MDR-Rundfunkchor occasionally sounded muffled in the Ulrichskirche’s ungenerous acoustic. However, two nights later the always magnificent, considerably smaller Choeur de Chambre de Namur in Handel’s final oratorio Jephtha conquered the same space with superbly precise and alert singing that dug deep into some of the finest choruses the composer ever wrote.

The recipient after the concert of the festival’s annual Hãndel Prize, Rousset, who is having an extraordinary season, brought the chorus and his Talens Lyriques to Halle for a nobly moving Jephtha during which Jeremy Ovenden sounded infinitely better than he had on some recent broadcasts. His biting diction and virile agility brought an anguished nobility to the title character who, like Mozart’s Idomeneo, offers to sacrifice the first person he meets in exchange for a military victory. For Jephtha that is his daughter Iphis whose fate his wife Storge foresees in vivid music that mezzo Sophie Harmsen dispatched with modest fervor. Tim Mead’s mellifluously ardent Hamor and Edwin Crossley-Mercer’s sternly authoritative Zebul rounded out a strongly unified cast.

But the unexpected joy of Jephtha was the last-minute substitution of Lys for the absent Deborah Cachet as Iphis. Eyes glued to her iPad, she brought an ideally innocent lightness to one of Handel’s most enchanting heroines. She gracefully accepted her fate with a freshly floating, silvery soprano of moving sincerity. Lys’s stunning double-play of Athalia and Iphise will remain among my happiest Halle memories.

But what about opera? I couldn’t fit in this year’s new production of Amadigi directed by Louisa Proske at the Halle Oper. But I did catch a revival of last year’s Serse, another Proske production. The American director whose work I enjoyed as one of the founders of Heartbeat Opera, chose to mold Serse into a sexy romp ignoring the serious emotions that surge throughout the late-career opera. Though Jon Bausor’s stage-filling airplane set provided many delights, Proske’s choices inevitably went toward broad and frenetic hijinks.

The hacked-up musical edition was shocking in the midst of a festival that otherwise demonstrated high musicological values. Numerous arias had sections randomly omitted, and Amastre oddly got an extra aria from another work. Though the director clearly found in Amastre a heroine equal to Romilda, she sanctioned the omission of the haunting duet between Amastre and Serse, one of the few moments in the opera that connects them. Without it, their reunion during the denouement doesn’t make much sense.

Most of the cast were members of the Halle Oper and not early music specialists. However, Yulia Sokolik as Amastre displayed a solid grasp of the style as eventually did Franziska Krötenheerdt, who had started out quite edgily as Romilda. Andreas Beinhauer’s antic Elviro was grandly sung even when he donned full flight attendant drag.

As Arsamene, Leandro Marziotte’s pale countertenor alternated wan moments with sensitive ones. His bold if hyperactive characterization held its own opposite that of the brilliant Anna Bonitatibus as the temperamental, clueless title character. Alarms went off in my head at the opera’s start when she performed a very quiet “Ombra mai fu,” but it soon became clear that her approach was just an eccentric choice. Otherwise, she performed credibly as the dumpy, unlucky Serse.

The most noteworthy aspect of the evening turned out to be an unexpected one: Bonitatibus got badly lost in the da capo repeat of her final aria “Crude furie.” At the end she directed the competent conductor Attilio Cremonesi to start over which they did. This time around she sang with it with ever more daring bravura culminating in a dazzling, death-defying da capo that gave me chills and won her a rowdy ovation. For Bonitatibus alone, I was glad to have seen Serse.

But the operatic highpoint for me was a concert performance by the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra and a cast of singers drawn mostly from the Parnassus management agency of Teseo, Handel’s lone five-act opera with a text adapted from Quinault’s libretto written for Lully’s Thésée. The opera is a favorite of mine, a piece full of crazy coloratura showpieces and heartfelt laments. And its Medea is the second of Handel’s marvelous portraits of heartbroken sorceresses that culminate in Alcina. A singer previously unknown to me, French mezzo Fanny Lustaud, scorched the walls of the Freylinghausen-Saal of the Frankesche Stiftungen with her fiery Medea, though she’d have been even more effective if her Italian had been crisper.

Suzanne Jerosme suffered sweetly as the unlucky Agilea but she too tackled scores of sixteenth notes with insouciant assurance. Conductor Jaroslaw Thiel chose extremely brisk tempi throughout when some might have worked just slightly more slowly. His haste was particularly noticeable in the deliriously frenzied erotic love duet between Agilea and Teseo.

Very young male soprano Dennis Orellana as Teseo often astonished with his wide range and quicksilver facility, but I often wished he would modulate his voice more subtly. But he was far more accomplished than countertenor Franko Klisovic whose hooty, show-offy antics irritated as Arcane. Clizia, his love interest, doesn’t get very interesting arias, but Johanna Rosa Falkinger sang them with an endearing modesty. Rather than import another of the many Parnassus countertenors, Thiel presented fine contralto Sonja Runge who was consistently impressive; why isn’t she better known in a world that currently lacks many accomplished baroque altos?

Because I had planned to hear her perform the same program at Zankel Hall in April–but it was abruptly canceled without explanation, I missed Magdalena Kozena singing all of Alcina’s arias with La Cetra. Instead, I trekked out of Halle to attend a rare staging of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Sieg der Schönheit in Magdeburg, the composer’s hometown. I never did figure out the long opera’s comic plot, but the singers were exceptionally fine, particularly Lydia Teuscher and Terry Wey. In the pit was the Akademie fur Alte Musik, one of the world’s very best period-instrument ensembles, who reveled in Telemann’s astonishingly bracing orchestral writing under Michael Hofstetter. While Telemann ranks well below Handel as an opera composer, it was exciting to hear one of his operas in a theater not so very far from the site of Hamburg’s Gänsemarkt, the significant, long-ago destroyed opera house where Handel began his opera career along with Telemann and Reinhard Kaiser whose Octavia will be performed at both next year’s reduced Halle Händel-Festpiele and the next edition of the Boston Early Music Festival.

By the way, Hamburg hosts in its KomponistenQuartier a delightful museum devoted to a bevy of local-ish composers: Telemann, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Johann Adolf Hasse, Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, and Gustav Mahler! Next door, there is also a Johannes Brahms museum, but I skipped that one.

Handel’s Statue in Halle Photo: Christopher Corwin
Anna Dennis and Marie Lys after Athalia at Händel-Festspiele
Photo: Françoise Laugier-Morun