Angels and monsters: a life singing Handel

Ian Bostridge introduces the very personal selection of arias for our Handel Around the World concert.

It seems like I’ve been singing Handel’s music for ever. As a boy, telling the story of the shepherds and the angels in the Messiah; or as a novice teenage Acis succumbing to Polyphemus’s jealous blows. I’ve been singing Handel with the amazing players of the OAE for a long time too (we made a disc of arias together some years ago).

This particular programme reflects the ways in which Handel the cosmopolitan – born in Germany, active in Italy, settled in London as an icon of Hanoverian Protestant rule – ranged across time and place in his operas. Some of these stories are mythical, like Acis and Galatea; some classical, like Julius Caesar in Egypt; some from less familiar periods of history, like the conflict between the Central Asian conqueror Tamerlano – also know as Tamburlaine or Timur – and the Ottoman emperor Bayezid I or Bajazet; or the late seventh century rivalry between the Lombard king Bertarido and Grimoaldo, Duke of Benevento.

The programme was originally mooted as a sort of musical demonstration against the barriers to cultural exchange which musicians have seen erected in recent years. We had hoped to undertake a tour which would start in Europe then move through Tamburlaine’s domains in Central Asia and on to East Asia. If visa complexities made this tricky, war in Europe has made it impossible. We can only range across the continent in our imaginations, aided by Handel’s music.

Juxtaposed with instrumental pieces, we present a mixture of the effortlessly charming and melodic – Acis’s pastoral longing or ‘Un momento di contento’ from Alcina  – with some of the darkest and most dramatic music Handel ever wrote. Castrati often played the heroes in Handel’s Italian operas, but for the great Modenese tenor Francesco Borosini he wrote two extraordinary and anguished roles:  the defeated emperor Bajazet, who takes his own life and bids farewell to his daughter; and the tyrannical usurper Grimoaldo, whose conscience begins to stir. A bracing alternative aria for Sesto from Giulio Cesare reminds us that tenor were sometimes brought in to replace absent mezzos, male or female. In the case of the final aria, ‘Scherza Infida’ from Ariodante I have simply stolen from the higher octave one of the greatest pieces Handel ever wrote.

See Handel Around the World at the Southbank Centre in London (1 February), Manchester (5 February) and Hamburg (7 February).