Handel: Giove in Argo

Handel: Giove in Argo
Britten Theatre, 26 March 2015
Laurence Cummings conductor
London Handel Orchestra

Like London busses, you can wait for ages to hear a pasticcio opera, and then three come along at once. After Fabio Biondi’s reconstruction of Vivaldi’s compilation L’Oracolo in Messenia at The Barbican and Opera Settecento’s excellent concert performance of Handel’s 1732 compilation opera Catone in Utica (both reviewed below), along came Handel’s 1739 Giove in Argo. It was considered lost until some arias were discovered a few years ago. John H Roberts has reconstructed and edited the score (for Bärenreiter), adding missing recitatives. After recent outings in Göttingen, Hanover and Halle, this was the first UK performance since 1739. It was given in the intimate space of the Britten Theatre with singers from the RCM International Opera School as part of the London Handel Festival.

The plot is loosely drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It focuses on the antics of a rather naughty Giove (Jove/Jupiter) and his attempts to seduce two mortals at the same time by disguising himself as the shepherd Arete. The hapless ladies, Calisto (of Cavalli’s La Calisto) and Iside, have a complicated back-story of their own. Iside’s father had been killed by Calisto’s father who was then disposed as King of somewhere-or-other and took refuge in a forest, disguised as a shepherd – as you do. As it happens, the same forest is also home to his daughter and Iside.  Iside’s fiancé, Osiri, King of somewhere-else, is searching for her in the same forest, also disguised as a shepherd (called Erasto).  In addition to the two girls and the three shepherds in disguise, we also have Diana and her assorted virgins, a life-long state that Calisto seems to aspire to. And so it goes on, until the inevitable concluding deus ex machina which, despite Iside going mad and Calisto awaiting execution for not appearing to be as chaste as Diana would wish, leaves them all with ‘gladdened hearts’ singing ‘songs of joy and gay delight’.

Unlike Catone in Utica, which draws on music from several composers, Handel reused music from his own earlier operas, some of it already well-known to his London audiences – notably Tornami a vagheggiar. Several of the intended arias were changed before opening night, apparently to suit the tastes and wishes of the available singers.

Director James Bonas’s interpretation was far from the expected Arcadian romp, and some way from the music editor’s notion that it should not be taken seriously. With designer Molly Einchcomb and lighting designer Rob Casey, the darker side was emphasised as much as the expected sexiness – a sort of 50 Shades of Black.  The staging was sparse (as, apparently, was the original), with a series of climbing-frame poles being the main visual focus, later wrapped within a giant cats cradle. There was the inevitable clambering about and singing while dangling from said poles, but such antics seem to be an essential part of young opera singers’ repertoire nowadays. There were occasional oriental references, including a tea ceremony. The lighting was excellent, with much use made of silhouette.

There were two casts alternating over the four nights but unfortunately I wasn’t able to hear both of them. I saw the second cast, but judging from the standard of the singing this was by no means a reserve team. The whole cast was strong, but there were two particularly effective female singers in the key roles of Calisto and Iside. The impressive Galina Averina’s star moments as Calisto came with the two show-stoppers Tornami a vagheggiar and Combattuta da più venti, but she also impressed with the gentle Ah! Non son io che parlo. Iside was sung by the equally impressive Kezia Bienek, her powerful voice and excellent dramatic abilities being notably to the fore during her ‘mad-scene’ accompagnato at the end of Act 2.  This was followed by a clever staging of the concluding Act chorus when they were spread on different levels at the rear sides of the audience, singing as individuals as well as a chorus – an appropriate reflection of the personal trials and tribulations of love, and of the mental disintegration of Iside.  There were seven other choruses, sung with gusto but rather too much vibrato by the students.

Diana was sung by He Wu, her rather pinched tone and persistent and rapid vibrato being rather off-putting. But she did well to cope with the enormous horned headdress that she had to wear.  Erasto/Osiri (Timothy Nelson) started off wandering across the stage in rucksacked-rambler mode before turning out to be a revengeful brute – a difficult switch of character. Laurence Cummings conducted with his customary vim and vigour, energizing the London Handel Orchestra and giving the singers ample chance to portray their wares.

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