All out Handel cyber-attack in Halle, Germany. Hang on! Cyber? Baroque, surely, at this 8th-century city’s annual Handelfest. You know, the towering headdresses, spangled costumes, descending Gods in fiery chariots, courtly dances, lots of standing about singing at audiences. 

Park’n bark, but oh, so elegantly done. The sort of thing that sends millennials rushing for earphones and Spotify accounts. What makes opera “elitist”. Here’s an Andrew Parrott Amadigi that makes my point for me. Clock Amadigi’s amazing tartan outfit. He was Scottish, you know. One of the MacAmadigis from Paisley. 

Not boring was Louisa Proske’s Amadigi di Gaula, Georg Frederic Handel’s fifth opera, opening this year’s festival on a dank spring evening at the Halle Opera House, twice restored since being bombed in the latter stages of the Second World War. 

The audience found itself in a contemporary cathedral of coloured blinking server racks, roiling projections of data centres stretching to infinity, an AI world of the imagination from which our hero, Amadigi 2.0, the witch Melissa, Oriana, Amadigi’s inamorata, and Dardano, a dastard with the hots for Oriana, would emerge. 

Time for traditionalist tantrum. How could Proske dare mix Handel and AI? The answer is she was immersing herself in Handel’s zeitgeist. Here is hot news from the 1715 premiere in London’s The King’s Theatre. “There was also a variety of dancing, a fountain on stage – Wow! A real fountain? (ed.) – and so many scenes and machines to be moved that the subscribers’ privilege of standing on the stage itself was withdrawn for reasons of safety.”

Having created an opera rooted in magic, sorcery and spells Handel employed every mechanical trick in the 18th-century book to bring his audience into his make-believe world, as has Proske in the 21st.

Amadigi di Gaula is an opera in three Acts. With only four principal characters the action is taught. Precis of the action follows. Not a lot actually happens.

Melissa, a witch, has imprisoned Oriana in a tower. Dardano and Amadigi plan to rescue her. Snafu. Oriana and Amadigi love each other, but Dardano loves Oriana. Snafu 2.0, Magical Melissa loves Amadigi. 

Melissa courts Amadigi, but it’s a ‘no-go’. Oriana is hijacked by Melissa’s demons. We arrive at the Fountain of Truth. Melissa has photo-shopped Oriana and Dardano in a clinch. Amadigi sees them. Furious. Oriana is brought in by Melissa. Amadigi accuses her of perfidy but still won’t dump her for Melissa. 

Dardano, now wandering about pitifully, is turned by Melissa into the image of Amadigi. Canoodles with Oriana (deceived). The real Amadigi arrives and kills Dardano. Last gasp Melissa conjures up the ghost of Dardano, but the spirit blesses the two lovers. Why? Who knows.

Melissa stabs herself. Orgando, Oriana’s uncle, who until now has been on an away day, suddenly descends unannounced from the clouds – literally ex machina. Blessing. Marriage. Rejoicing. 

The challenge for any director not wanting to bore the pants off the audience is that while Handel’s music is sublime, the grand da capo aria form can bang on a bit. Proske’s solution is, make the action fizz with vitality, setting it against dazzling choreography, exploiting the asset of Melissa’s devilish spirits to the full. 

Das Ballet Halle, choreographed by Michal Sedláček, wove themselves in and out of the surreal data centre world with breath-taking dynamism. Swiss costume and set designer Kaspar Glarnar surpassed himself. The principals were dressed in baroque style, roaming their unfamiliar world of high tech.

Melissa was, in one manifestation, a confection of scarlet and black wonder, the flowing intricacies of her power-shoulders referenced in a projected backdrop.

The tension between the high-tech AI world and the “real” dilemma of Amadigi, Oriana and Dardano was subtly referenced. At one point, Amadigi reaches into a cabinet and pulls on a lengthening skein of cables, wrapping himself in a mystery he cannot comprehend. But, he is clearly trying to come to terms with this unfamiliar world. A bit like me on a Saturday evening doing battle with a TV remote. 

Melissa’s death – in every other production I have seen she is, understandably, just a corpse – took place when she staggered into the back of a glowing red server cabinet and miraculously dissolved. Control-Alt-Delete. 

Then there were the three bunnies. We had disappeared down a rabbit hole. The Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland reference. I have it on good authority there was a thought they should have featured in the background throughout, like Floris Visser’s character of Death in Glyndebourne’s 2022  La bohème. But the costumes weren’t up to snuff, so the human-sized rabbits appeared only once, escorting Oriana to safety round the back of a server cabinet. As bunnies do.

I should have been prepared for Handel-surreal, on crack. Proske directed Rinaldo at Glimmerglass last year, another stunning display of inventiveness, setting the action in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. I see she is directing Tosca at the upstate New York festival in 2025. Rob Ainsley, Glimmerglass’ Director is savvy to be bringing Proske back. 

Amadigi is for high voices. Countertenor Rafal Tomkiewicz sang Amadigi, soprano Serafina Starke was Oriana, mezzo-soprano Yulia Sokolik trouser-rolled Dardano, and soprano Franziska Krötenheerdt was the heart-stopping Melissa. Bravo tutti! 

The Händelfestspielorchester performed the score to perfection under the baton of Spanish conductor Dani Espasa, a true musical all-rounder. Pianist, harpsichordist, accordionist, composer, producer, arranger, teacher – and now rabbit dirigiste. Musically, this performance could not be faulted.

Earlier that afternoon a carillon had pealed in the Roter Turm (Red Tower), locals had braved drizzle to gather round Handel’s 19th century Hermann Heidel verdigris-green statue in the marketplace and the Händel-Haus, an intimate museum dedicated to Halle’s most famous son, was in full celebratory fig. 

Halle also has a Bach Haus. But that would be Wilhelm Friedman Bach, Johann Sebastian’s eldest son, who lived in the city for twenty-four years. Halleans make a fine fist of hanging on to Handel with their fingernails. By 1712 the great composer was a migrant, chugging across the Channel to London, just ahead of his boss, the Elector of Hanover, in 1714. George I. Good job Rishi wasn’t around. George might have ended up ruling Rwanda. 

The good burghers of Halle take their festival seriously. At my modest hotel, the next morning, waiting for my 6:00am taxi for the airport, Paris and the delights of La Bastille opera house, I engaged the overnight receptionist, Heike, in chit chat.

“No, no, I don’t take a huge interest in opera. Of course, I like Verdi, Puccini and we are all very proud of Handel. I only go to some of the festival events nowadays.” I fantasised about a similar conversation at the desk of the Premier Inn in local Wandsworth. Nuff said. 

Handel is a life force in Halle and in the closing moments of Amadigi he featured in his own opera. Proske created a coup de theâtre that was unexpected, apt and highly moving. Orgando, the dodgy uncle who appears sans explanation at the last moment, is a wasted character.

Proske, in a moment of pure genius humour, replaced him with the town hero instead. In the final scene, instead of anachronistic Uncle Useless, the familiar green figure, in the form of a street-art living statue, descended on his plinth, discreetly conducting the celebrations, and wielding the original score. No, it’s not been lost. Handel had it all the time.

The server farm gave way to the marketplace in sunlight, populated by locals and tourists. Selfies with Handel. Amadigi and Oriana dumped the baroque gear, dressed in modern kit and merged with the crowd. They, and Handel were home. Where they belonged. 

And another thing!

If it’s Thursday lunchtime and there are 35 minutes wasting in the diary, head to St Martin in the Fields, London, where you will encounter Great Sacred Music, “A sequence to speak to the heart, head and soul, exploring through songs and readings the great classical music of our religious heritage.”

Totally undersold, in the heart of the bustling capital this performance, featuring works by Thomas Attwood, Thomas Tallis, William Harris and Alison Willis, offered an oasis of calm. Happens every week.

St Martin’s Voices, led by Sarah Keating delivered an ethereal experience. At the beginning of Attwood’s Come Holy Ghost, accompanied initially by organ, I found myself wishing the ensemble – they were so good – would sing a capella instead. Then, they did. 

I pass by St Martins regularly in city perambulations. No more. I shall now head there with a sense of purpose. I had been minding my own business in the Café in the Crypt when I was charmingly press-ganged by St Martin in the Fields Trust enforcer, Caroline Muir, into taking a more active interest in the music and charitable activities around Trafalgar Square. I did not dare decline.

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