Imeneo – enjoyable light Handel

24 Mar

There’s a temptation to feel that there’s a sameness about Handel’s operas.  Generally they seem to involve at least two couples, generally with names that no-one was ever called, who love each other in varying permutations and who get sorted out one way or another by the end.  There’s often a strong element of comedy and, in the better ones, some politics or something about power.  Structurally, the main characters have at least aria per act and, at times you feel Handel trotted out some of those arias pretty much by rote.  I can imagine people saying that, if you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen the lot.

Imeneo, which I saw on 14th March at the Britten Theatre as part of the London Handel Festival both confirms and disproves the prejudices.  The plot is pretty much a story of a woman, Rosmene, choosing between the man who loves her and whom she loves(Tirinto) and the man who has saved her life (Imeneo, otherwise the god, Hymen).  There is a second woman, Clomiri, in love with Imeneo and the obligatory bass father-figure, Argenio.  You see what I mean about the names.  What is interesting is that Rosmene chooses against love and there is a strange scene where she feigns madness or a breakdown in order to break the news to Tirinto.

It’s not a great libretto.  There’s none of the political shenanigans or the plot complexities that you get in other Handel operas and, to be honest, the relationships aren’t well developed and it’s hard to sympathise with the characters – they all look a bit stock.  What is most frustrating is that you can see no reason why Rosmene chooses Imeneo rather than Tirinto.  On the other hand, there’s some really attractive music.  That for Tirinto is the finest (a particularly gorgeous number early on) but his arias are all excellent. There are some jolly numbers for both women and for Imeneo.  There’s even a trio and some choruses.  For Handel, this is getting daring and there isn’t a bad number in the piece.  I spent the evening smiling at the man’s sheer joyous genius.  With a strong director, this could be a very enjoyable light evening.

Paul Curran’s direction had a lot going for it.  He set it in a luxury health spa on some Greek island.  The set was of pillars which moved easily to vary the scenes.  Imeneo sported a variety of swimwear and leisure gear throughout and Luke D Williams had the figure to carry this off with aplomb.  He directed his characters so that they conveyed the emotions well.  It was well-drilled, plenty of business to distract the eye without completly wrecking the plot.  He did not, however, solve the centrol problem of why Rosmene chooses Imeneo over Tirinto.  Without this, the evening is no more than beguiling, if slightly puzzling, entertainment.

The London Handel Festival’s performances often suffer from the fact that Handel was writing for singers who were hugely experienced stars – the Sutherlands, Domingos and Bartolis of their day. Here, we tend to have very promising students.  With that, quite important cavil in mind, however, there was a lot to enjoy in the performances.  I saw the second cast and thought that Tai Oney as Tirinto displayed a very fine counter tenor with a real sense of style even if he didn’t project the character as strongly as he might.  Hannah Sanderson made a strong Rosmene who was very effective in her mad scene.  Katherine Crompton as Clomiri was delightful, singing with ease and charm.  Luke D Williams sang Imeneo with the same confidence that he displayed in managing his costumes and displayed a very promising bass voice.

Laurence Cummings’s experience in this repertory paid off hugely.  He conducted an affectionate, stylish performance that knew what the piece was about.  The London Handel Orchestra seems to improve every year and provided considerable pleasure.

This may not be Handel’s finest opera, but it reminded me that even minor Handel operas can be huge fun and very rewarding and it was hard not to enjoy the evening.  There’s a concert performance of the piece at the Barbican in May with a very promising cast and I’ll aim to be there.

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