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Capturing the musical and historical imagination: Portland Baroque Orchestra serves up a delicious musical pie in Dinner with Handel

A new “pasticcio” created by PBO director Julian Perkins and librettist Stephen Pettitt combined arias by Handel and other Baroque composers with newly-written recitatives for an evening of operatic entertainment.

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Portrait of George Frederic Handel by Balthasar Denner, c. 1726.
Portrait of George Frederic Handel by Balthasar Denner, c. 1726.

George Frederic Handel is such a star in the firmament of composers that it is quite easy to forget he was a real person with pluses and minuses, just like the rest of us. Portland Baroque Orchestra’s production of Dinner with Handel in its U.S. premiere (February 10) revealed some of the complexity of the great composer, reminding concertgoers that he could be high-handed and temperamental too. Arranged in the form of a pasticcio by PBO’s Artistic Director Julian Perkins with librettist Stephen Pettitt, Dinner with Handel presented a sumptuous story that regaled the audience at First Baptist Church with arias poached from works by Handel, Henry Purcell, Thomas Arne, and Antonio Vivaldi and stylish recitatives created by Perkins.

Perkins was commissioned by the Handel & Hendrix House in London to come up with a pasticcio about Handel for the world’s first-ever Handeliade. Yes, you guessed it. Legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived in the same house as Handel about 200 years later, and you can actually visit this musical destination.

Handel & Hendrix House in London (photo via wikipedia).
Handel & Hendrix House in London (photo via wikipedia).
Handel & Hendrix House in London (photo via wikipedia).
(Photo via wikipedia).
Handel & Hendrix House in London (photo via wikipedia).
(Photo via wikipedia).

So Perkins and Pettit, a former London-based music critic, concocted Dinner with Handel as a pasticcio, and it was premiered in Gloucestershire in 2021. A pasticcio is a musical pie in which opera arias are strung together without a storyline, and singers loved to do them back in Handel’s time. Aside from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 production of The Enchanted Island, such operatic mash-ups are few and far between. But when Handel was alive, it was quite fashionable to attend a pasticcio at Covent Garden and other venues. 

Perkins and Pettit’s Dinner with Handel revolves around a surprise dinner party set in 1734 at Handel’s home in London. Although the storyline is fictitious, the characters are all based on real people with whom Handel interacted. 

In the PBO production, baritone Kenneth Overton marvelously conveyed the Machiavellian intentions of Handel’s cook, Gustavus Waltz, who instigated the supper because his singing career was ignored by Handel despite promises that had been made. So in the first aria, from “Oh ruddier than the cherry” from Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Waltz sang of his “machinations, executed with finesse” while sipping a glass of wine.

Right off the top, Handel made it clear that he didn’t have time to bother with guests but he couldn’t resist the food. Via the aria “Qual nave smarrita” from his opera Radamisto, countertenor Daniel Moody held his chin high and proclaimed of Waltz that “cooking’s his talent while music is mine.” 

The first guest to arrive was one of Handel’s longtime friends, Mary Pendarves. Sung with elan by mezzo-soprano Abi Levis, Pendarves was quite the merry widow as she giddily teased Waltz with a peacock feather and sang “I seek excitement” to the tune of “Un altra volta ancor” from Handel’s Partenope

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Next came rival composer Johann Christop Pepusch, whose The Beggars Opera appealed directly to the common Londoner without the highfalutin Italian seria stuff that was Handel’s bread and butter.  His success was a direct threat to Handel. Tenor Aaron Sheehan adamantly staked out Pepusch’s claim to the operagoing turf with plain and simple language via Purcell’s “Lillibullero,” incorporated in The Beggar’s Opera.

The final guest was Francesca Cuzzoni, the star soprano, who felt insulted by Handel, and was ready to extract something as a way of revenge. Soprano Arwen Myers brilliantly captured Cuzzoni’s full-of-herself demeanor with “Myself I shall adore” from Handel’s Semele in which her voice swirled into the stratosphere numerous times – with each foray climbing higher and becoming more ornamented – while praising herself. 

Handel, needless to say, felt quite put upon and after a sequence of arias and recitatives, ended up casting Pepusch and Cuzzoni out of his house. Consequently, Pendarves declared that she was very displeased with Handel and exited as well. That left the great composer with Waltz and a scene of enlightenment and reconciliation.  Handel finally asked for forgiveness and a chance to do better, and the show wrapped up with the quintet of Myers, Levis, Overton, Sheehan, and Moody elevating the atmosphere with glasses raised, praising the virtues of friendship and forgiveness.

Set to one side of the stage, Perkins guided the entire enterprise from the harpsichord, urging the singers and chamber ensemble onward. The baroque stage band (violinists Caral Moore and Rob Diggins, violist Victoria Gunn, violincellist Tonya Tomkins, contrabassist Todd Larsen, theorbo and guitarist John Lenti, oboists and recorderists Stephen Bard and Kathryn Montoya, and bassoonist Nate Helgeson) played with great sensitivity to the singers and flourish.

The scenery involved a minimum of props: a painting placed on an easel, one small table, a couple of chairs, two bottles of vino, and glasses were used in the first half of the show. The second half featured a larger table for the dinner and additional food items. In lieu of projected titles, the printed text of the libretto was a real plus for the audience.

Including intermission, the entire run time of Dinner with Handel was almost two hours and twenty minutes. Perhaps that was too much of a good thing. A slight haircut to the production might be in order, but I can easily see Dinner with Handel being performed in other venues and at festivals that celebrate early music. It captures the musical imagination and the historical imagination, blending in a bit of humor with an uplifting message. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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