Handel - Agrippina - Les Talens Lyriques - Enescu Festival, Bucharest

The Georges Enescu Festival welcomed Les Talens Lyriques to perform Handel’s Giulio Cesare [HWV 17] on the 20th September 2019 and Handel’s Agrippina [HWV 6] on the 21st September 2019. These consecutive late night performances took place at the Romanian Athenaeum in the Romanian capital city of Bucharest.

This project began with rehearsals in Paris at one of Les Talens Lyriques’ usual Montmartre rehearsal venues, the Chapelle of Collège Decour - this is also where we rehearsed the last time we did an Agrippina project, prior to the Dortmund and Halle performances.

With the trumpets being involved in so little of Handel’s Agrippina, we played only for a few minutes in the morning rehearsal and we returned in the afternoon for a full run through. In the meantime I had chance to explore some more of Paris. Will and I walked from Collège Decour along many interesting streets and eventually ended up at the Louvre taking in, along the way, the Academie Nationale de Musique - an imposing and impressive building, replete with gold detailing.

The highlights on our return trip were Passage Jouffroy and Passage Verdeau, shopping arcades with an old-world charm, which provided an artisanal and photogenic thoroughfare in the 9th arrondissement. Our return trip culminated with a visit to Rue des Martyrs which seemed to be a good place to procure lunch. We bought a baguette, goats cheese, pâté de campagne etc. and enjoyed a picnic in the park next to Collège Decour. It was a very enjoyable and inexpensive lunch.

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Dinner was, of course, at our favourite restaurant in Paris. We are now recognised at Colline d’Asie and asked whether it’s the usual. The chance distribution of three slices of onion reminded me of the land of my birth, the Isle of Man:

The orchestra rendezvoused at Paris Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2E at 12:30 on Thursday 19th September 2019. We took a flight to Bucharest and enjoyed stunning views flying over France, the Alps, Lichenstein, Austria, the Northern tip of Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia before reaching Romania. We arrived at dusk and took a coach to the hotel on Rue Georges Enescu. We were staying very near to the concert venue, and it was a twenty-minute walk to the Old Town of Bucharest. I managed to persuade Will to come with me to a place called Caru' cu bere (literally ‘at the beer wagon’), that I had read about as the most famous restaurant in Bucharest’s Old Town. This restaurant and brewery served traditional Romanian food and their own fresh beer. The atmosphere was excellent, if a little touristy, and the cathedralesque indoor decor reminded me of the famous Früh in Köln. Later in the evening, four dancers materialised in traditional dress and began dancing to amplified music - later, selecting patrons to dance with them. Fortunately our table was adorned with glasses and plates, displaying the remnants of a mixed grill sharing platter for two and two large empty glasses of beer. So, I expect these brilliant dancers thought better of trying to steer us (probably weighing several kilograms more than usual) around the dance floor. It was a great place to relax and to acclimatise after the flight.

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The following day, the orchestra would be rehearsing and performing Giulio Cesare which sadly does not have any trumpet parts. So, we were free all day in Bucharest. We began the day with a lengthy walk, taking in the Palace of Parliament (the third-largest administrative building in the world), the Dâmbovița River and the Old Town (in daylight, this time), with its antique shops and markets.

We returned to the hotel at around 11:30am in preparation for a visit to the French Embassy in Bucharest. Les Talens Lyriques had been kindly invited for lunch by the ambassador. We took our passports and enjoyed an incredible lunch in the fine buildings on Strada Biserica Amzei.

Romania and the Romanian language has clearly been influenced by French culture throughout history. There are noticeable French influences in the language (of which I only really managed hello: bună, and thank you: mulțumesc). As well as bună, an alternative version of hello in Romanian could be salut, the same as in French. Reading up on this French influence, it seems that the Romanian intelligentsia favoured an education in Paris and therefore French political ideas and literature became fashionable. An interesting article on the many loanwords can be found here. As this article states: "Most of the new words borrowed in the 18th and early 19th Centuries pertain, unsurprisingly, to the military and administrative domains."

We took another walk to the Old Town in the afternoon and took time to enjoy the extraordinary architecture of the places of worship, and we stopped at a café for a leisurely cup of tea. Later, we returned to a location that we had earmarked for dinner on one of our earlier scouting missions. Hanu' lui Manuc, situated just off the Piața Sfântul Anton, was a fantastic restaurant and bar in a courtyard. Coach-loads of people seemed to disappear into the surrounding buildings, but we favoured the outdoor dining option. This extraordinary restaurant had a poetic menu. Favourite extracts include:

“Beer of the House - unfiltered Premium, 400ml - 13,3 [Romanian Leu (RON) ≈ £2.50 GBP]

Beer connoisseurs will discover in Manuc’s House beer something rare and forgotten - patience. In patience lies the secret of good and settled taste, patience of the malt while fermenting, patience of the beer mug beeing [sic] iced, the lad’s patience when pouring it into the glass so that it, the beer, lightly rolls into the glass leaving two fingers of snow white foam behind. Out of this patience comes your impatience, dear guest, to thirstily taste this noble liquid.”

“Skewers from the old Fanar - for 2 people, 900g/300g - 98,00 [Romanian Leu (RON) ≈ £18.40 GBP]

An encyclopaedia of skewers from the orient’s outskirts, cut by a silver knife and seasoned with artistry by the last Ottoman butcher. Nine historical pieces accompanied by rice, onions and baked tomatoes.”
As it was, Will and I drank the aforementioned beer (patience was rewarded) and we shared a caramelised lamb knuckle, the description for which was a little more ordinary: “prepared in the oven with herbs and red wine, served with baked potatoes and a sautè of green beans and garlic.” The food was very good, the atmosphere (although it was busy) was relaxing and another quartet of dancers appeared, followed closely by an eclectic musical ensemble comprising pan pipes, vocals, a zither and a double bass. It was good, but the singer roamed the courtyard with a radio microphone, singing at diners. It seemed best not to make eye contact.

On the walk back towards the hotel we listened to musicians playing on an outdoor stage as part of the Georges Enescu Festival, and enjoyed a Mozart Horn Concerto at the Piata George Enescu (outside the Romanian Athenaeum). We had been given tickets for the performance of Giulio Cesare that evening, which began at 22:30. I wanted to listen to the horn player in the famous obbligato aria Va tacito. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it, and the first two hours of Giulio Cesare but I left after the first act to catch up on sleep (after a relentless few weeks playing in the Aurora Orchestra’s Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique project, I was feeling fairly run down). I left at around midnight, knowing that I would have to stay up later tomorrow to play in Agrippina.

We visited a cash machine in the morning to take out 40 Romanian Leu (RON) [≈ £7.50 GBP] in order to attend the (cash only) National Museum of Art of Romania, housed in the Royal Palace - as the art had been collected by the Romanian Royal Family. On one side of the palace there was a European art collection and on the other side there was a Romanian art collection, so we bought a combined ticket for both for 25 Leu. This was the first time I had seen Romanian currency. Our 15 Leu in change from the museum ticket purchase enabled us to view the 5 Leu note for the first time, with the composer Georges Enescu (1881 - 1955), a violin and a carnation on the obverse and the Romanian Athenaeum on the reverse.

The art collections were interesting with a variety of styles on display in these palatial galleries. On the international side, I enjoyed the images by El Greco, Jan van Eyck, Rembrandt, Monet and in particular three musical works: Giacomo Amiconi’s (c.1685 - 1752) Portrait of Singer Carlo Broschi called Farinelli, an anonymous work from the early 18th Century German School entitled Still Life with Music Scores, and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri’s (1591 - 1666) Saint Francis and Saint Benedict Listening to a Musician Angel. In the Romanian galleries, I was impressed by the repoussé work on various precious metals, and the early 20th Century artwork was interesting. It was especially interesting to speculate on the influences of these Romanian artists; one painting by Samuel Mützner (Bucharest, 1884-1959) was called ‘View from Giverny’, with Giverny being the location of Monet’s famous garden. I wondered if he would have met Monet or if he had visited Giverny after Monet’s death. Later reading confirmed my first speculation:

“In 1908, Mützner was working in Giverny, where the elderly Claude Monet was passing on his experience as an impressionist painter to younger artists. Under Monet’s influence, Mützner studied carefully one and the same spot so as to understand the changing effects of light on colour and atmosphere depending on time of day, weather or season and render them on canvas.” - MNAR
In the evening we attended a rehearsal at the Romanian Athenaeum, where the orchestra had performed Giulio Cesare the night before. The room was ornate and a very wide fresco by Costin Petrescu followed the contour of the wall panoramically, depicting the key points of Romanian history, beginning with the conquest of Dacia by the Roman Emperor Trajan (a suitable backdrop for both Giulio Cesare and Agrippina) and ending with the creation of Greater Romania in 1918.

Our brilliant timpanist, David Joignaux, was using borrowed timpani to save transporting his own to Bucharest. The timpani that he was using looked exactly like timpani that I have seen in museums and I wondered whether they were original. I spoke to him about these instruments and he informed me that they were, in fact, original 18th Century timpani. Apparently the drums had been discovered in the organ loft of a church somewhere in Romania (I presume the heads had been replaced) and two specially made wooden crates both raised the instruments to the correct playing height and protected the instruments when they were not in use. The timpani made a fantastic sound (David always seems to make a fantastic sound no matter what he plays) and it was very special indeed to play with original 18th Century timpani.

Agrippina is a fantastic opera with so many great tunes. It’s a bit of a shame that the trumpets do not have more to play, but we were glad that Handel had included trumpets at all. I have many happy memories of performing Agrippina with Les Talens Lyriques earlier this year and with Festspiel Orchester Göttingen in 2015 when we gave six full opera performances in the Deutsches Theatre in Göttingen. That means I have played this piece nine times now, which is undoubtedly more than I have repeatedly played any other Handel opera (let's not mention counting performances of Handel Oratorios!).

The performance was excellent, and it finished at around 2am! Christophe Rousset (director) was on great form, as were the soloists: Ann Hallenberg (Agrippina), Karina Gauvin (Poppea), Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Nerone), Christopher Lowrey (Ottone), Ashley Riches (Claudio), Kacper Szelążek (Narciso), Douglas Williams (Lesbo) and Etienne Bazola (Pallante). Bucharest was a fantastic city to visit and the Enescu Festival was astonishing in its quality and sheer number of consecutive and diverse performances.

Russell Gilmour
Russell Gilmour Blog
writing on music, photography, engraving, travel and life as a freelance professional musician.