IDAGIO Meets … Bridget Cunningham

In their newest album, Bridget Cunningham and London Early Opera present a world premiere recording of Handel’s opera, Caio Fabbricio. We spoke to the conductor and harpsichordist about her love of baroque music and about the revival of this long-neglected work.

Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to specialise in the performance and directing of baroque music, and why Handel’s music has a particular significance for you?

There is something I find totally captivating and universal about Handel’s music—his expressiveness, exquisite vocal lines and rich driving harmonic patterns, which speak to me on a very deep level and which I can share with our audiences. His music was performed at theatres, chapels, royal courts, orphanages as well as at the public pleasure gardens—there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Handel was also a harpsichordist like me, and directed the orchestra from the harpsichord which I absolutely adore doing, as it’s a way of deeply connecting with all the instruments whilst playing the basso continuo, which underpins the music and gives the rhythmic energy. I enjoy the wide range of Handel’s keyboard writing, from the improvisatory movements, the vocal qualities and the feeling of the dance elements above his very orchestral colours and contrapuntal harmonies. I’ve always worked closely with professional singers, exploring colours, style, ornaments and rhetoric in baroque repertoire, from one effect to another. After one of my Handel harpsichord recitals a few years ago, an elderly lady held my hands and said she was so moved by the concert, but also so incredibly sad to have experienced such beautiful and stylishly elegant music now, so late on in her life. I don’t want other people to miss out on this opportunity of hearing and being touched by Handel’s music, or music of the baroque era. 

You own a double manual Ruckers-style harpsichord, which is the same type Handel owned during his time in London. What does it mean to you to be playing the same instrument as the composer himself?

I have a double manual Ruckers-style harpsichord with two manuals, two 8-foot registers, a 4-foot, which sounds an octave higher, and a buff stop—very similar to the type Handel owned when he lived in Mayfair in London. They’re exquisite instruments! Mine is a modern copy, built in London, and is a copy of an instrument in the private apartments of Château de Versailles, with a lid painting copied from an instrument in the Russell Collection in Edinburgh. It is wonderful to play and gives a certain sense of how the colours and sound change between the rich, French, viol-like bass to a more vocal treble. I also really enjoy playing on original instruments as much as possible and respect the preservation of each instrument. 

You often research the music for your projects yourself. Has research always been an important component of your musical career, and what does it bring to your performance practice?

Yes, I am a multi-tasker, like Handel, and believe that performance and research go hand in hand. A lot of the music I play is from eighteenth-century sources, unedited manuscripts or early printed publications, and it’s important for me to research each in a historical context using historical treatises and other sources. To rediscover works, I get manuscripts digitised, research and edit the music and create new scores and parts as a way to really understand and connect with the music. Originally not many performance directions were written down and today our audiences appreciate the element of spontaneity, a blend of pre-rehearsed music allowing space and freedom for the performers to breathe and phrase together and add ornaments and improvisation.

How did your latest album, Caio Fabbricio, come about and what made you choose this particular opera?

I specialise in directing baroque music in general and am currently working on my doctorate on Johann Adolph Hasse’s music, to help bring his music to the forefront. As well as recording the more iconic and well-known works of Handel, I wanted to look at the neglected repertoire and bring his operas and music back to life, which have not been heard for hundreds of years. Caio Fabbricio was a relatively unknown work by Handel, based on Hasse’s original opera, which was performed in Rome over a year before Handel’s performance in London in 1733. I also felt that Caio Fabbricio is very relevant today as it is based on the Pyrrhic Victory, after King Pyrrhus who led the Greeks into victory against Rome (c.280 B.C.), and who decided that to win again would in fact be a loss as so many lives were lost. The opera shares this famous story of the incorruptible Roman ambassador Caio Fabbricio restoring peace afterwards. Intertwined with underlying sub-plots of romantic interest, the opera comes to a close with only a brief celebratory chorus rather than a jubilant, victorious ending.

For those of us who might not have been previously familiar with Hasse, could you tell us a little about this composer and how he is connected with Handel?

Johann Adolf Hasse was German, worked in Italy, like Handel, and also received patronage across Europe, but he was 14 years younger than Handel and therefore composed in the more modern, popular Neapolitan style, which is melody-led. Hasse married one of Handel’s greatest prima donna singers Faustina Bordoni, who I have researched and recorded for our Handel’s Queens album. Hasse never came to England, but he and Faustina became a power couple who dominated the eighteenth-century concert scene in Europe and were equally as popular as Handel was in England. Hasse quickly rose to become the most widely admired composer of opera seria in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. 

Caio Fabbricio consists of thirteen out of twenty-one of Hasse’s original arias, with substitute arias from other composers making up the rest. How does the music hold together as a whole?

It holds together very well because it’s not like a pasticcio in the original sense. Originally a pasticcio was a mixture of pieces put together to create new storylines – more like a patchwork – whereas Caio Fabbricio is actually an adaptation of Hasse’s opera, based on the same storyboard by Aposostolo Zeno. Handel used thirteen of the original arias and then replaced the others with arias to suit his new singers, including Carestini and Strada del Po, and to show off their vocal talents. He chose pieces that they knew and performed well, their ‘aria di baule’ (suitcase arias), and then wrote his own new dramatic recitatives which are evenly proportioned between the seven roles.

Can you tell us a little about your opera company, London Early Opera?

I set up London Early Opera in 2008 as a research-led group and have an incredibly talented team of baroque instrumentalists, singers, historians and musicologists who are all passionate about baroque music and enjoy learning new, previously undiscovered repertoire. We share a deep respect and trust for each other so that artistic freedom is encouraged and everyone can try out ornaments, phrasings and share new ideas to work on the music together. We also train younger musicians in our emerging artists’ educational scheme, The Handelians.

We’d love to know what’s next in the pipeline? Do you have plans for any future projects which you can share with us?

We’re working on more Handel and Hasse operatic performance and recording projects, and I recently recorded the complete harpsichord works of the Irish baroque composer, Thomas Roseingrave, who was the first organist at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square in London, and also worked for Handel’s Royal Academy. I would love for people to realise how great Roseingrave’s music is, as there is some phenomenal keyboard writing and he really exploits the whole range and colours of the harpsichord.

Caio Fabbricio is out on IDAGIO now.


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