It is no surprise that in this Olympic year, various cultural goings-on have taken on, or alluded to, a sporting theme. This year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music made no exception, taking as its theme the ethos of the Olympic Games – Contests, Competitions and the Harmony of Nations – and cunningly applying it to incidents in musical history, as well as to music itself. The Festival's opening ceremony took the form of a concert given by the noted viola da gamba player Jordi Savall and his handpicked orchestra, with a colourful programme of European Baroque music. There followed an impressive series of concerts, including the UK première of Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade, a selection of Couperin's works demonstrating his fusion of French and Italian Baroque styles, and "Bach v. The World", an organ recital reflecting the rivalries of JSB and Louis Marchand.

Saturday night's concert was every bit as colourful a closing ceremony as one might expect at the Games themselves. Handel's "rival queens" were not feuding royals, but two of the most celebrated (or not, depending on whose viewpoint is taken) operatic divas of his time: Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, whose respective roles were assumed by Lisa Milne and Mhairi Lawson. The programme focused largely on arias composed by Handel especially for these two great ladies, but the inclusion of various overtures to the operas of the day allowed space for the orchestra to show off its own talents, as well as giving extra context. Through interspersed readings of contemporary letters, newspaper reviews and diary entries, the audience was told how the two singers were received and perceived, and how they fell in and out of fashion with various patrons.

Cuzzoni, then, was "short and squat, with a doughy cross face" (Charles Burney); "a 'native warble' enabled her to execute divisions with such facility as to conceal their difficulty. So grateful and touching was her natural tone that she rendered pathetic whatever she sang... Her trill was perfect... Her high notes were unrivalled in clearness and sweetness" (Mancini). Lisa Milne (replacing Rosemary Joshua, who was regrettably unavailable) could certainly not be said to fit Burney's unflattering description, but the carefully selected programme highlighted what Mancini had said and allowed the audience to compare and contrast that account with the singing on offer. Bursting onto the stage with Handel's lively "Amante stravagante" (from Flavio, re' di Longobardi),  Milne demonstrated the ease with which Cuzzoni had reputedly managed to "execute divisions" – though it would be unfair to suggest that this was down to a "native warble". Whilst Milne did not hold back on the vibrato, it was usually well-judged and complemented her stylish interpretation. Her intonation was, as Mancini had described Cuzzoni, "absolutely true" across the various styles of singing. Milne excelled particularly in Porpora's beautiful "Miseri, sventurati, poveri affetti miei" (from Arianna in Nasso), one of the more doleful arias of the evening, which displayed less of Cuzzoni's talent for expressive acting and more of her sensitivity and clarity in singing.

The descriptions of Cuzzoni's great rival, Faustina Bordoni (simply known as "Faustina"), were no more or less flattering. The German composer J.J. Quantz described her as possessing a "mezzo-soprano voice, that was less clear than penetrating... In her action she was very happy; and as her performance possessed that flexibility of muscles and face-play which constitute expression, she succeeded equally well in furious, tender, and amorous parts... she was born for singing and acting". Mhairi Lawson really took this description to heart, flirting puppyishly with the audience as she joyously sang Handel's "Lusinghe più care" (from Alessandro), and expressing the misery required of Cleofide in "Son qual misera colomba" in the eponymous opera by her husband, the German composer Johann Hasse. At one point, the narrator (whose compelling, hypnotically deep voice was provided by Christopher Benjamin) described Faustina's appalling behaviour on and off stage, which Lawson then emulated, quickly blowing her nose into her scarf before continuing with her singing, which was thankfully less penetrating than clear. The nuisance Faustina caused in rehearsals by imploring the orchestra to play faster, then – no, that was too fast – slower again, was also reflected by Lawson on stage, as she turned round in an interlude to conduct the excellent Early Opera Company's musicians. Even Christian Curnyn, who was already faced with the challenging task of conducting from the harpsichord, managed to interact as Lawson expressed her obviously mock disapproval at his and the other instrumentalists' precise and zesty playing.

The concert was rounded off with an act which seemed to fly in the face of everything that the audience had been told about the two ladies' fierce rivalries and each's attempt to sabotage the other's performances: Lawson and Milne came together to sing the duet "Placa l'alma, quieta il petto!", again from Handel's Alessandro. This was undoubtedly the jewel in the excellent concert's crown, Milne and Lawson blending together exquisitely, and the players accompanying them with just as much sparkle. Their acting was toned down for the final number, which simply allowed their voices to captivate the audience once more. It was finally clear that the rivalries that existed were not, in fact, between the singers, but between their respective unruly patrons.

Handel and the Rival Queens, at St Johns Smith SquareJulia Savage reviews the Early Opera Company in the closing concert of the Lufthansa Baroque Festival.5