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When we close our season on 3 June, all arias performed will be from roles associated with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Here Lindsay Kemp discusses the performer and the history behind the music.
‘Sesto (in Giulio Cesare) was one of (Lieberson’s) first operatic engagements in New York back in 1985, when she was a soprano, and also marked her first collaboration with director Peter Sellars; eleven years later she would work with him again for Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s searing production of Theodora (conducted by William Christie), investing Irene with an intense nobility that will linger long in the memories of those who witnessed it. By that time she had sung and recorded Ariodante in the 1995 Göttingen Handel Festival staging conducted by Nicholas McGegan, and in 1999 the role of the tortured, jealous Dejanira (in Hercules) must have seemed made for her vivid vocal acting skills when she perfomed it in Boston, the city where her singing career had begun as a choir member in Craig Smith’s Emmanuel Music.
Yet although it is her artistry we celebrate, the original interpreters of these arias were very different from each other. For one thing they were not all women – the attitude of opera-goers towards gender in an age when the beauty of the high voice mattered more than realism was relaxed to say the least. The first Sesto was Margherita Durastanti, a Venetian soprano whom Handel had known since his youthful days in Italy. Handel wrote a total of four male operatic roles for her – ironic when you consider that when she sang the part of Mary Magdalen in his oratorio La resurrezione in Rome in 1708, the Pope complained and she was replaced by a castrato! She was a gifted actress, though the eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney described her person as ‘coarse and masculine’. By contrast, the castrato singer who created the role of Ariodante, the great Giovanni Carestini, was remembered as ‘tall, beautiful and majestic’, and his stage debut in 1721 had been in a female role. He was Handel’s leading man in the mid-1730s, however, before resuming his glittering career on the continent.
Irene was Caterina Galli, a young singer whom Handel probably taught himself; despite the role’s feminine stoicism, she often sang male parts elsewhere, including the title-role in Solomon, and Burney remarked that ‘there was something spirited and interesting in her manner’. We know little about the singer who took the meaty role of Dejanira; ‘Miss Robinson’ was perhaps the daughter of the Ann Turner Robinson who had sung a number of minor roles for Handel in the 1720s and ’30s, but her own time with the composer was limited to the 1744-5 season, and she was not heard of again’.