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Elpidia at the LHF

1 Apr

Another Handel pasticcio courtesy of Opera Settecento and the London Handel Festival. This time it’s his first, Elpidia, from 1725. I saw the concert performance at St George’s Hanover Square on 31st March.

A fortnight before, at the same venue I saw a performance by La Nuova Musica of Berenice.  I’m sorry I didn’t get round to blogging about their Berenice but, for the record, I thought it was an excellent performance, had some great music, some less great and surely his most confusing plot: I completely lost track of who was in love with whom and avenging what.

Elpidia’s plot by contrast is quite simple and if I tell you that it’s subtitle is “The Generous Rivals”, you’ll probably get the picture.  Elpidia has three suitors two of whom are noble and one of them (by far the most interesting) abducts her.  It all gets sorted out.  The libretto, by Zeno was heavily cut by either by Handel or by one of his associates to the extent that the piece veered towards the comic.  I’m not sure that worried Handel.

The purpose really was to let London hear arias by the great contemporary Italian composers who hadn’t been heard there.  On the basis that one aria about tempests, or breezes, or guinea fowl is as good as another and can be fitted more or less where you like, they selected some numbers by those composers to slot in at appropriate places.  It struck me that this performance had a similar purpose.  How many of us have heard anything by Vinci, Orlandini, Lotti or Sarri?  This was an opportunity to hear some fine music.

And there were some lovely arias among them.  If none matched Handel at his finest, none had that anonymous quality that some of his lesser arias hold.  Most of the Vinci arias are seriously lovely pieces and I was particularly impressed by the tenor aria Al mio tesoro from his Rosmira, while Orlandini provided a gorgeous alto farewell aria from his own Berenice.  If I have a complaint it was that I would (a) have welcomed a bit of contrast among the arias – there was much less bravura opportunity than you get in the Handel arias of the time and no lighter numbers.  You also don’t get a feel for any of the composers’ personalities.  The evening felt like what it was – a selection of rather good arias sewn together.

All praise to Leo Duarte who did the reconstruction of the piece and who conducted. The reconstruction must have been fascinating with some difficult choices about arias.  His conducting struck me as outstanding – considerate of his singers, bringing out the best in the music.  He got refined, well articulated, secure, confident playing from the very excellent band.  This was marvellously assured baroque playing and conducting.

The singers were strong, all on the threshold, I would say, of pretty strong careers.  Erica Eloff is obviously a favourite with the Opera Settecento management.  She sang Elpidia’s varied arias confidently and with considerable beauty.  Rupert Enticknapp as Olindo, the rival that Elpidia loves, has the more heartfelt arias of the two counter tenor roles and sang them really well.  Joe Bolger, as Ormonte, who has to make do with the seconda donna (who conveniently falls in love with him at first sight) needed a tad more power but I liked his soft-grained but very attractive voice.  Rupert Charlesworth as Vitige, the villain, insofar as there is one, seemed to me to have the finest numbers of all and sang them really convincingly and with great beauty.  Chris Jacklin as Belisario and Maria Oustroukhova as Rosmilda didn’t let the side down either but did not have the same opportunities as their colleagues.  Being hyper-critical, these arias were written for stars and what I missed was the charisma and that last ounce of bravura that, say, a Sutherland or Baker could bring.  I’m not sure that it mattered.

I can’t think of any reason to stage the piece but this was an interesting, rewarding evening.  It made me feel that I’d like to hear a full piece by Vinci and some of the others.  Are there extant versions of his Ifigenia or Rosmira? The latter, in particular, seems to have some gems of numbers in it.  Any chance of Opera Settecento having a go?  We owe a lot to that organisation and I’d strongly recommend booking for their performance of Hasse’s Demetrio at Cadogan Hall in September.







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.

Exhuming Handel as Editor

18 Mar

Yet more archeology. Opera Settecento presented “Handel”s Catone in Utica” at St George’s Hanover Square on 17th March claiming it as a modern premiere – certainly the first performance since 1732. It’s not really by Handel – edited by Handel certainly – but there’s barely a note by him in the original.

Handel frequently included pasticcios in his London seasons as a way of introducing London to arias by other European composers. Here, he took a libretto by Metastasio which had been set by a couple of composers, most recently the Venetian, Leo. He cut the recitative and replaced a number of Leo’s arias with ones by Hasse, Porpora, Vinci and Vivaldi, selected to suit the individual singers and, possibly, the situation. Unlike the Vivaldi, L’oracolo in Messenia the other week, we can be pretty sure that this was, more or less, what Handel’s audiences heard.

The piece is about Cato committing suicide rather than recognise Caesar as emperor and a love triangle whereby his daughter Marzia is betrothed to his ally, Arbace, but is in love with Cesare. Pompey’s wife Emilia also appears – not quite sure why. It moves reasonably swiftly and provides a neat enough showcase for some interesting arias. Stylistically they are all very different and there isn’t much unity about them but they are all grateful and of a very high quality. It’s hard to feel much interest in the characters or their problems and the performance didn’t really help this.

All of these arias were written for virtuoso singers at the height of their powers. Here we had mostly young singers working with enthusiasm and talent and generally getting by. They were here for the arias and I very much wondered how much work the recitative had had – I wasn’t sure how many of them understood or cared about what they understood what they were singing; it all moved slowly, undramatically.

The best impressions were made by Emilie Renaud as the second role of Arbace and by Christopher Jacklin as Cesare. Both appeared to understand what they were singing, enjoyed communicating it and sang very well. Renaud’s arias may be less flashy but she sang them with a rich, communicative, sincerity. Jacklin’s required some pretty fiendish coloratura and he did a remarkably fine job of them.

As Marzia, Erica Eloff seemed rather cool but sang stylishly – particularly the fiendish final aria from Vinci’s Artaserse. Christina Gansch was rather anonymous as Emilia.

Catone was meant to be sung by Andrew Watts, but he was ill. In the circumstances we have to be grateful to Christopher Robson for stepping in at short notice to undertake what must have been entirely unfamiliar music. I’ll leave it at that.

Tom Foster conducted fluidly and keeping the show moving. He struck me as having a real feel for this sort of music and his orchestra played pretty well for him.

I wouldn’t rush back to see this piece again but I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to experience it and I may well search out some CDs of the arias.

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.