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Lucas Meachem as Aeneas & Sarah Connolly as Dido [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
01 Apr 2009

Handel & Purcell on Special Offer at Covent Garden

If combining the anniversaries of both Purcell and Handel in one production at the Royal Opera was something of a master-stroke, then getting the Royal Ballet in on the act must have seemed to be verging on the brilliant from a commercial point of view.

Handel & Purcell on Special Offer at Covent Garden

Dido and Aeneas: Dido (Sarah Connolly); Belinda (Lucy Crowe); Aeneas (Lucas Meachem); Sorceress (Sara Fulgoni); Spirit (Iestyn Davies); Sailor (Ji-Min Park); First Witch (Eri Nakamura); Second Witch (Pumeza Matshikiza); Second Woman (Anita Watson

Acis and Galatea: Galatea (sung by Danielle de Niese); Galatea (danced by Mara Galeazzi, Lauren Cuthbertson); Acis (sung by Charles Workman); Acis (danced by Rupert Pennefather, Edward Watson); Damon (sung by Paul Agnew); Damon (danced by Steven McRae); Coridon (sung by Ji-Min Park); Coridon (danced by Paul Kay); Polyphemus (sung by Matthew Rose); Polyphemus (danced by Eric Underwood)

The Royal Opera. The Royal Ballet. Christopher Hogwood, conductor. Wayne McGregor, director and choreography.

Above: Lucas Meachem as Aeneas & Sarah Connolly as Dido

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House

 

There are plenty of die-hard Handelians in London, a lesser number (we may presume) of passionate Purcellians, and undoubtedly droves of those devoted to the dance — so one can only imagine the glee with which this project was seized upon in the board rooms of Covent Garden. With Dido running to just sixty minutes and Acis to ninety, together they made up a most satisfying sandwich of English baroque music at its most melodious.

Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor had already shown his work with Dido & Aeneas at La Scala in 2006, so it was only the direction and dance elements for Acis & Galatea that were actually new on the 31st March, and he had a starry cast of singers to work on both productions, as well as his colleagues from the Ballet. In the event there were disappointments as well as delights on the vocal front, and not a little puzzlement regarding the dance.

In Purcell’s Dido, Connolly’s technical assurance, (this role’s tessitura seems to suit ideally) and her total psychological immersion in the role gained from her recent performances and recording, should have enabled her to delineate every nuance of the doomed Queen’s journey from delight in her new love to the final, cathartic acceptance of his betrayal. However, an announced indisposition (a throat infection) prevented her from fully realising the role in a way that might have been expected. She struggled to colour and project in the first Acts, and only managed to give us a glimpse of what might have been in the final, celebrated “When I am laid in earth…” A full recovery in time for the succeeding dates is to be sincerely wished.

Lucas Meacham, baritone, as the perfidious Aeneas, managed to convey some of the vacillating aspects of his character, but his effortful singing and lack of period style was noticeable. In stark and welcome contrast was the stylish, agile soprano of Lucy Crowe who gave us a youthfully-blooming and bell-like Belinda which promises much for the later classical repertoire as well as further major Handelian roles. This dramatically rather ambiguous character’s music was delivered with intelligence. The lesser roles were again variable: Sara Fulgoni mangled the vowels of the Sorceress to a degree that really isn’t on with Purcell at this venue (she sang in the La Scala production where one assumes it wasn’t noticed so much) and didn’t convince as the evil manipulator of the whole drama. Her young witches Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza sang brightly with better diction, but were costumed as if just off a London catwalk. Far too nice. Young English countertenor Iestyn Davies was a welcome newcomer to ROH, singing his twelve bars as the Spirit from off-stage somewhere, but with clean attack, good full-throated projection and clear diction. Anita Watson sang the one aria of the Second Woman and Ji-Min Park the Sailor’s; the latter with commendable style and tone. Throughout, the Chorus was excellent in both diction and ensemble and their essential role in this drama was not only underlined but showcased in an entirely proper way.

Dido_Aeneas_ROH_2009_02.gifSara Fulgoni as Sorceress & Eri Nakamura as First Witch & Pumeza Matshikiza as Second Witch

Seeing the added choreography for the first time neither added nor particularly detracted from the whole — the dancers seemed to be colouring-in the musical interludes and choruses rather than saying anything very much new about the drama. The classical, spare set worked well and gave all performers room to move and lighting filled in the nuances of the drama.

Less convincing were the choreographic elements of Wayne McGregor’s handling of Handel’s Acis. McGregor has, he says, tried to not just mirror the action of this pastoral masque, (or serenata), but to try to access the “meanings” of the drama through the use of dance-imagery — his famously angular patterns trying to elucidate the tensions between the “present” reality of the drama and a more fragile emotional reality. Each singer had either a single or couple of dancers (in as-naked body-stockings) as their alter-egos and it was necessary to accept this extra dimension to the operatic experience if one was to gain such insight. This writer couldn’t, but others may.

Acis_Galatea_ROH_2009_01.gifDanielle de Niese as Galatea & Charles Workman as Acis

It was good to see Charles Workman back on an English stage in the title role. His Handel, up to now, has been limited to just four roles as he’s been in demand on the continent for his Rossini and Mozart, but on this showing we might expect to see more of him here. Acis lies high in the lyrical tenor’s range, and Workman was indeed working hard from time to time, but his elegance of phrasing and good line in such deceptively difficult arias as “Love in her eyes sits playing…” was a delight. Even more noticeable, and welcome, was his ability to combine Handelian style with plenty of vocal power; his full and ringing tone was a highlight of the whole evening’s double bill and he also received the only spontaneous post-aria applause after a sterling “Love sounds th’alarm”. Matching him in the style stakes, if not the dynamics, was the veteran period performer Paul Agnew who wove lovely phrases around Damon’s bewitchingly melodic lines.

Acis_Galatea_ROH_2009_03.gifJi-Min Park as Coridon, Lauren Cuthbertson as Galatea and Paul Kay as Coridon

Workman’s fellow American, the glamorous Danielle de Niese, has built up a considerable (would it be churlish to suggest mainly male?) following in Handel in recent years. But Galatea is no Cleopatra, and de Niese was called upon to realise a very different heroine here. Curiously decked out in black and white, with a bright red scarf and peroxide blonde wig with plaits, she looked like a particularly exotic Heidi and occasionally acted like one. Her soprano is well schooled and flexible and in her middle range she approaches a really beautiful tone. Her carefully prepared trills and ornaments were beautifully placed and “As when the dove….” was prettily sung, but a hardness creeps in when she goes high above the staff. This can reduce the impact of such delicate and affecting arias as “Heart, the seat of soft delight” which is a shame as this is what this role is all about.

Another throat-sufferer pre-announced was bass Matthew Rose as the giant Polyphemus, who made his entrances along a curious but clever “Giant’s Causeway” of mock-basaltic rocks. His singing was not too badly affected and was rounded and smooth without any bark or growl. Whether McGregor’s direction of him worked is debateable. He seemed strangely awkward at times — and was required to walk off stage rather tamely after a perfunctory killing of the noble Acis with a very small rock. Ji-Min Park again sang — this time the one aria of Coridon — and again showed a pleasing tone and style.

Acis_Galatea_ROH_2009_02.gifMatthew Rose as Polyphemus & Danielle de Niese as Galatea

Also repeating success, and if anything surpassing themselves, was the Royal Opera Extra Chorus who had more acting to do and who sang with assurance and relish. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under veteran Christopher Hogwood presided at each “opera” — and after some initial intonation variations they settled down to give a polished reading of both, with Anthony Robson’s oboe particularly expressive and stylish. This wasn’t a cutting-edge period performance, but then neither were the productions. What Covent Garden’s first night full house certainly got was value for money — whether it’s the way forward for such baroque gems is another matter.

Sue Loder © 2009

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