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05 Nov 2018

English Touring Opera: Troubled fidelities and faiths

‘Can engaging with contemporary social issues save the opera?’ asked M. Sophia Newman last week, on the website, News City, noting that many commentators believe that ‘public interest in stuffy, intimidating, expensive opera is inevitably dwindling’, and that ‘several recent opera productions suggest that interest in a new kind of urban, less formally-staged, socially-engaged opera is emerging and drawing in new audiences to the centuries-old art form’.

English Touring Opera, autumn tour (Snape Maltings Concert Hall)

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sky Ingram (Dido)

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Of course, the debates are complex and the contexts diverse and often starkly different. But, English Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Radamisto, currently touring the UK and visiting cities from Durham in the north to Exeter in the south, seems to suggest otherwise. Director James Conway’s production does not update the action, does not consciously seek modern ‘relevance’, respects the score (though there are some judicious cuts, which ensure that the audience’s stamina is not over-taxed), and tells the story straight and true. In so doing, Conway, aided by an accomplished cast, makes the historical dramatically and emotionally immediate, and ‘real’.

Radamisto , which premiered at the King’s Theatre on 27 April 1720, was Handel’s first full-scale opera for the new Royal Academy of Music, and the latter’s second production. The anonymous libretto (sometimes accredited to Nicola Haym) was an adaptation of D. Lalli’s L’amour tirannico, o Zenobia (Venice, 1710), which itself drew on a byway of Roman history as related by Tacitus in his Annals of Imperial Rome.

Characteristically, this opera seria text throws spousal devotion, patriotic duty, tyrannical lust and tested loyalties into the dramatic bear-pit. It is the female characters - the abused and long-suffering Polissena, wife of the Armenian King Tiridate, and Zenobia, the wife of Tiridate’s brother-in-law, Radamisto, whom the narcissistic, infatuated Armenian hothead desires as much as he craves the Thracian Radamisto’s throne - who, as emblems of faithfulness and fortitude, lead us through cruelties and moral quagmires to resolution, reconciliation and reassurance. And, Conway, fittingly foregrounds this female duo, providing motivation and moral focus in the face of some of the libretto’s non sequiturs and nonsensical sequences.

JC Gyeanty.jpgJohn-Colyn Gyeantey (Tigrane), Andrew Slater (Farasmane). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

While Radamisto epitomises romantic loyalty and filial duty, the other male characters prove feckless, flimsy or, in the case of Farasmane, Radamisto’s deposed father, weakened by imprisonment and humiliation. The character of Fraate - Tiridate’s brother, who has also desired Zenobia and who originally facilitated some of the plot mechanisms and motivations - was, when the opera was revived in December 1720, revised by Handel and then subsequently eliminated, so Conway’s decision to excise this rather one-dimensional role seems sensible.

Designer Adam Wiltshire’s set is economical: starkly lit by Rory Beaton within a surrounding blackness - thereby isolating and sharpening the characters’ ethical dilemmas and defects - archways and porticos, ramparts and rockfaces, and some splendid costumes, provide visual definition of time, place and aesthetic. In the apparent absence of stage-hands, the characters themselves swivel and slide the large set-pieces: twice William Towers, immediately after delivering one of Radamisto’s stamina-taxing arias, had to find a bit more breath and strength to shift a heavy arch or wall.

Radamisto and Zenobia.jpgWilliam Towers (Radamisto), Katie Bray (Zenobia). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Beaton shines heightening white spotlights on characters as they plunge emotional depths in their arias, but also makes effective use of colour. Polissena’s bravura ‘Dopo l’orride procelle’, which ends Handel’s first of three acts, was set against a screened backdrop of a fateful sky which transmuted from grey-blue, through lilac and purple, to portentous red. In Act 2, a towering entrance opening, slashed into the prevailing black, glowed a fiery orange. And, there were a few scenic effects which surprised the audience in Snape Maltings Concert Hall: such as when the fleeing Radamisto and Zenobia seemed to climb into the back-telescreen, which proved to be not two- but three-dimensional, and scampered agilely up the precarious mountain face from which Zenobia would throw herself in suicidal despair.

The title role was originally designed for a low soprano and was sung by Margherita Durastanti, but for the December 1720 production Handel made significant changes to Radamisto to suit the new, largely Italian cast who had arrived in London that year, and the role of the Thracian prince was taken by the castrato Senesino. Durastanti was renowned for her wide emotional range, Senesino for the power and sweetness of his voice, and the refinement of his ornamentation. I found Towers’ Radamisto a little undefined dramatically at the start - ‘Perfido, di a quell'empio tiranno’, sung in response to Tiridate’s threats to destroy Farasmene’s city if he does not relinquish his throne, and Zenobia’s self-sacrificing submission to Tiridate, might have been more assertive and confident - but the countertenor ‘grew into’ the role. ‘Ombra fa’ was both technically assured and inspired our sympathy - all the more so as Towers had to deliver his show-piece perched upon a precipitous ledge. The duet between Radamisto and Zenobia which ends Act II was particularly affecting.

Polissena centre.jpgEllie Laugharne (Polissena, centre). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Ellie Laugharne endowed Polissene which dignity and presence, phrasing the plaintive ‘Sommi dei’ beautifully and singing with lovely expressive tone and shading. She sometimes seemed a little underpowered in the more rapid passagework and ‘Sposo ingrato’, in which the Queen challenges her abusive husband having previously saved him from her brother’s murderous wrath, was accurate but rather light.

John-Colyn Gyeantey performed the part of Tigrane, Tiridate’s conscience-stricken but gutless henchman, a role that was originally taken by soprano Caterina Galerati and which is still frequently sung by a soprano. Gyeantey’s characterisation was a little pale, but he made a fair attempt to convey Tigrane’s sincerity as he equivocated between his duties, passions and morals. The tenor was at his best in the slow passages which offered spaciousness to allow the beauty of his soft-grained tone to shine. As his Act 3 aria, ‘So ch’è vana la speranza’, showed, he can give poise to an emotional moment, but Gyeantey’s tenor lost definition and impact in the quicker passages and when the recitative was required to carry the drama forwards.

Zenobia and Tiridate.jpgKatie Bray (Zenobia), Grant Doyle (Tiridate). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Baritone Grant Doyle blustered appropriately as the psychotically egotistical Tiridate, reminding us that there are far too many such hot-headed narcissists in positions of political power today - Conway describes the Armenian king as ‘perverted by his own unbridled will’ - but occasionally sounding a little too tonally coarse. Andrew Slater conveyed Farasmane’s dignity and moral stature as the deposed Thracian monarch was man-handled around the stage.

The production truly came alive, though, when mezzo-soprano Katie Bray gave vivid voice to Zenobia’s principled utterances and noble passions, her scything power and richly coloured nuance sharply etching Zenobia’s firmness of temperament and political presence. Bray displayed deeply considered expressivity, too, in ‘Quando mai’, singing with tenderness and pathos.

Radamisto is bound to leave the audience with several unanswerable questions. Why does Polissena continue to love Tiridate despite his vicious tyranny and heartlessness? Why does Tridate vacillate so spinelessly? Why does Zenobia throw herself off a mountain peak and then re-appear unscathed? Though Conway tells the tale straight he can’t overcome all of the libretto’s non sequiturs and nonsenses: the rapid climactic sequence at the end of Act 3 in which attempted rape is followed by thwarted double-murder, after which the apparently dead Radamisto revives himself, and which concludes with Tiridate’s personality-flip and a hastily constructed lieto fine raised a few chuckles in Snape Maltings, but that’s probably the fault of Handel’s libretto rather than directorial misjudgement.

Peter Whelan conducted the cast and the Old Street Band from the harpsichord, the latter improving as the proceedings progressed: after a slightly murky and dull overture, later we heard much more of the bright colouring of Handel’s score as flute, oboe and horns made sympathetic contributions to the drama. The continuo group was elegant led by Whelan and he was complemented by some gracious theorbo playing from Toby Carr and a lovely clear line from cellist Gavin Kibble. Whelan pushed the action swiftly but not precipitously forwards, and the overall result was visual, vocal and dramatic clarity and cohesiveness.

If only the relationships between the three parts of the triple bill which was presented the following evening had been so clear. When I spoke to Thomas Guthrie recently, prior to his production of Dido and Aeneas at the Barbican , he observed that one issue that must be addressed when staging Purcell’s opera is the question of which compositions to programme alongside the opera. Guthrie chose to present a ‘funeral for the late Queen of Carthage’ accompanied by other music by Purcell in the first half of the performance, so that the opera functioned as a flash-back, taking us ‘behind the scenes’. Conway and the other two directors presenting this triple bill have prefaced the Carthaginian Queen’s tragic demise with Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio, Jonas, and I Will Not Speak ( Io tacerò) - a sequence of Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigals and Tenebrae responses, interspersed with readings of poetic and religious texts.

Seeking a link between these three items (beyond the general concerns with fate and faith that they might be thought to share), I turned to conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny’s programme article introducing Carissimi, but could find nothing to guide me other than the tentative hypothesis that, since Pepys had recorded his admiration for the Italian composer’s music in his diary in the late-seventeenth century, and the latter’s music had been copied into English manuscripts such as those preserved at Christ Church Oxford, then, as Purcell had made his own copies of works by Monteverdi and Cazzati, he ‘must surely have seen the examples of Carissimi’. Perhaps; but if so, with what effect, and to what end here?

Carissimi’s Jonas is one of the oratorio volgare (in Italian, as opposed to the oratorio latino, in Latin) that he composed for performance before the religious elite in the Santa Crocificio Oratory in Rome. Carissimi composed fifteen or so such works, labelling them historioe: that is, they presented narrative accounts of episodes drawn from the Bible - here, Jonah’s encounter with the whale - in which drama is created by the juxtaposition of varied musical forms - choral narration, madrigalian songs and duets, a solo lament, instrumental episodes - and language, homophony alternating with imitation.

Jonas.jpgJorge Navarro-Colorado (Jonas). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

That master of the genre, George Frideric Handel, borrowed from Carissimi in some of his own oratorios. In recent times we have become used to seeing some of the latter staged, and here director Bernadette Iglich offered an attempt to impose visual and kinetic ‘theatre’ on music which has its own inherent drama. The eight performers, dressed in drab-coloured tunics and representing the ‘wicked’ community of Nineveh, moved with ritualistic solemnity around an unidentifiable column amid a blackness worthy of the leviathan’s belly, reflecting on faith and doubt.

The most obviously ‘dramatic’ incidents the biblical tale seem of little interest to Carissimi, though he does provide a colourful, explosive storm-scene which was vibrantly played by the Old Street Band. The composer’s focus is instead the doubts and equivocation of the protagonist. Jonah’s aria of supplication from inside the belly of the whale is the expressive climax, and it was beautifully sung by Jorge Navarro Colorado, the refrain, ‘Placare Domine’ (Subside your anger, Lord) powerful and moving.

Stirring singing during double-choir storm chorus was complemented elsewhere by the ensemble’s lovely, melodious blend and the text was carefully enunciated, especially in the closing chorus of repentance which follows the abrupt conversion of Ninevites - a fitting moral message for the departing congregation at the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso to carry with them but perhaps, judging from the responses around me, not quite such apt fulfilment of the expectations of those in Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

I will not speak.jpg I Will Not Speak. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

In I Will Not Speak, Conway sought to explore the interweaving and fusing of sensuality and spirituality, violence and virtue in the works of Gesualdo - a man renowned for the brutal murder of his adulterous wife, Maria D’Avalos. I’m not sure if one could say that the sequence was ‘staged’. Votive candles fluttered - a representation of the special candelabrum with fifteen candles which were distinguished one by one as each day’s service, commencing at nightfall, began, until only a single Paschal Candle remained; and also a metaphor for the quivering, fervent dialogue between faith and doubt. And, there was a slow ritual progress amid the flickering tiers of orange light, as the shadows multiplied and deepened until God plunged the world into darkness, the Crucifixion extinguishing the light of the world.

In any case, I cannot see any reason for adding dramatic action or movement to these works. There is enough melodrama within the madrigals, dominated as they are by a love which burns with the heated passion of a self-consuming destructive desire, and the Tenebrae Responses, which seek to bring human darkness and despair into balance with the hope of forgiveness and rebirth. Indeed, the music seems to express such interiorised agonies and ecstasies that all such external events are negated. Certainly, gestures such as a blowing of breath at the start of John Donne’s ‘The Expiration’ seemed somewhat trite. And, it seems all too perfunctory to make a direct link between Gesualdo’s tragic destiny and the torments of his musical voice, such as was intimated by the recitation of episodes of the composer’s life amid extracts from the Psalms, Igantius Loyala’s Spiritual Exercises, and The Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross.

Perhaps the chromatic distortions and intensities find their complement in the bitter, often self-lacerating arguments of the metaphysical texts of John Donne and George Herbert, but the conflicts expressed therein are those of a single voice, and the division of the poetic lines between different voices weakened this interior drama. The singers again performed assuredly, accompanied predominantly by strings, but the sweetness of the blended timbre denied the astringent dissonances their full power.

Aeneas RHS.jpg Nicholas Mogg (Aeneas). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Seb Harcombe’s Dido and Aeneas promised to restore the musico-dramatic equilibrium. Designer Adam Wiltshire presented us with the crumbling ruins of a Tudor manor - a metaphor for ravaged Carthage, perhaps. But, even here there was ambivalence. Harcombe professed to have viewed the opera ‘from inside the heroine’s mind’ - I guess that explains why this Dido was staring into a hand-mirror at the start, and resumed this position before the tilting fire-place/portico at the close - and there was a disconcerting disjuncture between the realism of the Elizabethan costumes, all stiffly starched ruffs and cod-pieces, and the pseudo-psychodrama of much of the Gothic gestures and lighting.

There were a few doubtful moments: I’m not sure that witnessing Aeneas’s rather rough wooing and writhing with his new amour to the accompaniment of the theorbo’s elaborate, but not very erotic, ground bass repetitions, was a substitute for the imagined mysteries of The Cave. But, despite this the truly fine singing won the day. Susanna Fairburn’s terrifically vivid Belinda was a good counterfoil for Sky Ingram’s depressive Queen: the latter’s dull tunic and tortured visage brought to mind the heroines of the Brontës, and the rich timbre of Ingram’s lower range was evocative of the profound passions and neuroses of Jane Eyre and Cathy Earnshaw. Nicholas Mogg’s Aeneas was an oddly indifferent courtier and courter, egoism rather than empathy taking precedence as he entered with the flourish of a Walter Raleigh or the Earl of Essex, presenting the Queen with a model ship which honoured his own adventuring and achievements. Long, lank black locks made the sonorous announcement of Frederick Long’s Sorceress even more surprising and chilling than usual.

Dido Richard Hubert Smith.jpgSky Ingram (Dido). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The small forces necessitated some compromises and excisions. The doubling up of Dido’s court and the coven of witches might have been thought to support Harcombe’s hypothesis that the events were conjured by Dido’s damaged psyche. But, the need for Dido to join the chorus, after Belinda’s ‘So fair the game, so rich the sport’, to help full out the sound, was less convincing. Moreover, the score’s joyful moments and carefree pastoralism seemed diluted.

During the final chorus, Dido rose and wandered, lost and unheeded through the ‘mourners’: perhaps the latter had already forgotten their Queen’s admonishment to ‘remember’? I’m not sure that this triple bill, beautifully sung but of dubious rationale and relevance - an encore, surely not necessary or appropriate after this most ‘perfect’ of operas, from Carissimi’s Jephtha seemed to return us to the staticism of earlier in the evening - will be one of my most vivid ETO memories.

But, Radamisto the night before had provided splendid enjoyment and fulfilment. And, I look forward to ETO’s spring tour, which presents three operas - Mozart’s Idomeneo, Rossini’s Elisabeth I, and Verdi’s Macbeth - in which still more Kings and Queens in battle for love, loyalty and power.

In the meantime, ETO’s autumn tour continues until 28th November.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Radamisto
English Touring Opera: Radamisto - William Towers, Zenobia - Katie Bray, Polissena - Ellie Laugharne, Tiridate - Doyle Grant, Tigrane - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Farasmane - Andrew Slater; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Peter Whelan, Designer - Adam Wiltshire, Lighting designer - Rory Beaton, The Old Street Band.
Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, Suffolk; Friday 2nd November 2018.

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas; Carissimi - Jonas; Gesualdo: I Will Not Speak Dido - Sky Ingram, Aeneas - Nicholas Mogg Belinda - Susanna Fairbairn, Sorceress - Frederick Long, Spirit - Benjamin Williamson, Second Woman - Alison Manifold, Sailor - Richard Dowling, Jonas -Jorge Navarro-Colorado; Director (Dido) Seb Harcombe, Director (Jonas) Bernadette Iglich, Director (I Will Not Speak) James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Peter Kenny, Designer - Adam Wiltshire, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton, The Old Street Band.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, Suffolk; Saturday 3rd October 2018.

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