Interchangeable Handel

24 Mar

Third pasticcio of the year and, so far as I know, the last. This was Handel’s Giove in Argo, which I saw on 23rd March as part of the London Handel Festival at the Britten Theatre. It proved to be a hugely enjoyable evening.

I will confess that I’ve sat through a few Handel operas and had the insidious thought, when some of the less inspired numbers come across, that here is yet another generic second soprano/villain/heroic aria and that there is no particular reason why it has to be in this opera, rather than any other. Giove in Argo takes this further. Handel took a libretto and inserted a series of arias from previous works, a few original ones and a couple brought in by one of his prima donnas from an opera by Araja.  It rather proved my theory.  One Handel aria can very frequently be put into an entirely different opera and situation and work perfectly well .

The opera didn’t please much in 1739 and there was no full score. The version we saw was reconstructed by John H Roberts.  It proved to be an enjoyable curiosity. I don’t usually have problems following the plots of Handel operas – provided you keep alert and watch the surtitles it’s usually fairly easy to work out who’s who, who they’re in love with/loved by and why they’re in disguise. This one was much more difficult, partly because I think that this performance cut a fair amount of recitative and some of the musical numbers. It wasn’t until the middle of the second Act that I really felt that that I’d sorted everyone out. The plot feels like a variant on Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It – Jupiter is haunting a wood where various kings and princesses are in hiding and making love to the princesses. This causes problems when one of the princess’s husband arrives and when the other, Calisto, decides to become a votaress of Diana. You get the typical tropes of people going mad, being misunderstood by their husbands and generally getting into messes that are sorted out remarkably easily at the end. It works and is interesting because the music is so fine.

The arias were great.  Two of them were from Alcina, one being Tornami a vagheggiar, which is always a joy to hear. I recognised one of the others from somewhere or other but the others were unfamiliar. It was great to hear a series of really fabulous arias, all experessing more or less the right emotions. I don’t think there was a single dud. The other fascinating thing was the role of the chorus. There are eight of them and, again, some really gorgeous ones to finish the acts. That at the end of the second Act struck me as particularly fine. As an opera it doesn’t have the genius of Alcina, Giulio Cesare or his other greats, but I couldn’t help feeling that, overall, the musical quality was a bit higher than for some of his others. And that raises all kinds of thoughts about opera and art generally.

Musically, the performance wasn’t bad. As ever, it’s done in conjunction with the Royal College of Music with students singing the roles. It was safe in the hands of Laurence Cummings. He’s a super conductor of this repertory. The music sounded secure, stylish and absolutely right. The London Handel Orchestra was in good form.

None of the singers let the side down, though all were stretched at times. Sofia Larsson had the task of singing, not just Tornami a Vagheggiar but about half a dozen other arias as well. She did them valiantly and, at times, movingly, despite a slight thinness of tone. Angela Simkin as Iside struck me as very special indeed – a series of fabulous arias, including a mad scene, dealt with really well. Rose Setten made a cold, implacable Diana. Peter Aisher’s pleasant tenor sounded stretched by Jupiter’s music and Nicholas Morton made a pretty good Erasto – I particularly enjoyed his singing of his last, reflective aria and felt that there were the makings of a very good lieder singer there. Matthew Buswell as Licaone had one aria at the beginning and some recitative at the end. He actually sounded rather good and I’m assuming that at least one aria may have been cut which was a shame for him.

James Bonas directed and turned this into a dark, rather nasty story, which it is. His direction of the characters was strong, particularly as the story got nastier. The set was economical but allowed some nice effects. My one complaint was that the lighting was resolutely dim and stopped you seeing faces at times.

So it was an enjoyable curiosity for Handelians and was a great opportunity to see one of the outliers. I don’t think it’ll get a toe-hold in the repertory, any more than it did in 1739 butt I’m glad I’ve seen it and I’d recommend a visit.

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