English Touring Opera: three 17th-century ‘Venetian’ operas

English Touring Opera: three 17th-century ‘Venetian’ operas
Handel Xerxes, Cavalli La
Calisto, Monteverdi ‘Ulysses’ Homecoming
English Touring Opera
Hackney Empire. 8, 14, 15 October 2016

Hackney Empire.jpgEnglish Touring Opera (ETO) has built a solid reputation for their two annual opera tours around England. In their most recent season, they visited 91 venues, with two groups of fully-staged operas (sung in English) plus various wider educational and community projects. It is a remarkable organisational undertaking and a tough call for the singers in each tour, with many singing in two operas and covering a role in the third. Usually touring two or three operas in the spring and autumn, they open with one-off autumnal London showings before hitting the road. Their choice of operas usually has a theme, or is otherwise related in style and period. This year’s autumn focus is on early operas written in, or inspired by, Venice, with Handel’s 1738 Xerxes, Cavailli’s 1651 La Calisto, and Monteverdi’s 1639 “Ulysses’ Homecoming” (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria), performed in reverse order to the dates of composition, and premièring in the magnificent surroundings of the Edwardian Hackney Empire.

Handel: Xerxes

The opening performance of Handel’s Xerxes (aka Serse) was a re-run of an October 2011 production, (directed by James Conway, designs by Sarah Bacon) and first seen in the Britten Theatre. Perhaps taking its staging clue from the famous opening aria, Ombra mai fu (aka Handel’s ‘Largo’), sung by Xerxes to a plane tree, the setting was a wartime airfield with Xerxes singing to the tail-end of a Spitfire. Get it? Very droll! Romilda and Atalanta are rather feisty volunteer nurses; Ariodante is the white-coated designer of the Spitfire; Elviro is a spiv black marketer trying to sell his’ stockings imported from Paris’; Xerxes’ brother, Arsamenes is a pilot while Xerxes is a wartime King. The programmes synopsis is written in the manner in which the opera is set, with the sections listed as ‘Morning at the airfield’, ‘Night at the airport’ etc. The action takes place in front of a Nissan hut. The backdrop is a projection of wartime scenes, with occasional blasts of recorded plane noises.

As textural updatings go, it is not too bad a concept. The 5th century BC characters of the original generally fitted their 1940s persona, aided by some textural changes to the libretto. The language (it was sung in an English translation/adaptation) is 21st century rather than the 1940s RAF of the Armstrong and Miller Show type. There were some fine examples of acting, notably from Julia Riley as Xerxes and Laura Mitchell and Galina Averina as Romilda and Atalanta, including a funny sisters’ tussle on a bed and some rather individual dance moves. These three also impressed me vocally, not least because they managed to control their vibrato to a certain degree. Sadly that cannot be said for much of the rest of the cast, who produced some of the most pronounced vibrato I have ever heard, generally accompanied by an overly operatic style of singing that, at best, can be described as suitable for very much later repertoire. Arsamenes’s diction made it almost impossible to grasp the words, not helped by his habit of portamentoing up to the notes and then slithering around them – and he was not alone.

I was pretty scathing about the direction and setting in my 2011 review, but perhaps familiarity helped this time. But I still found some of the seaside-postcard humour a bit cringe making, one being a flaccid wind sock that rather awkwardly became ithyphallic when the text suited. I also continue to be astonished by the extravagantly flamboyant conducting style of Jonathan Peter Kenny, whose strongly spot-lit windmill wafting about was distracting for the audience and not, I think, all that helpful for the musicians. ETO now have their own in house period instrument orchestra, drawn from the usual suspects. Despite the distractions, they played well.

Cavalli: La Calisto

The following weekend saw two new productions, starting with Cavalli’s La Calisto, first performed in 1651 in the Teatro Sant ‘Apollinare, Venice. The libretto by Faustino combines two myths, the seduction of the nymph Calisto by Jupiter/Giove, and Diana’s dalliance with the shepherd Endimione, neither of which really add to a dramatically coherent whole. Director Timothy Nelson (who also conducted) focussed on the latter myth, in its Renaissance re-telling where it is the moon-goddess Diana (rather than the earlier Greek goddess of the moon, Selene) that falls for Endimione, here transformed into an astronomer (as he is described in some versions of the myth), and as is apparent in the libretto. In his director’s note, Nelson allies Endimione with Galileo Galilei, a link that would, apparently, have been very much in the Venice audience’s minds. He equates the characters of Diana and Endimione with the emerging Age of Enlightenment, science and reason; and Calisto and Giove with declining belief in Christian theology: “while theology superseded mythology … science has superseded theology”.

A striking set by designer ‘takis’ reinforced the post-apocalyptic back story of Giove having set fire to the earth because of its evils, as Gods seem want to do on occasion. A stark screen of skeletal tree-like forms studded with the remains of cogs and wheels shares the stage with anglepoise lamps, looking rather sinister. A slide and a pair of ladders are important parts of the staging, the former as a rather silly entry point for several of the characters, the latter generally used to elevate the gods from the mortals. The whole thing looked a bit like a snakes and ladders board. The costumes were all-purpose glitteringly elaborate ancient. The lighting, by Mark Howland, was particularly effective.

On to this set slithered Giove and his sidekick Mercurio, only to engage in a bit of ‘locker room talk’ about the nymph Calisto. Despite Mercurio’s warning that she is a virginal follower of Diana, sworn to spurn love. Despite his bravado, his first attempt on her chastity fails, leading to Giove dressing up as Diana to trick the nymph, leading to one of many comedic aspects of the opera. Meanwhile the real Diana has taken a far from virginal shine to Endimione, upsetting the goat-man Pane who kidnaps and tortures Endimione. That particular plot ends with Diane chasing off the goat gods and exchanging a single rather chaste kiss and a farewell with Endimione. The Giove/Calisto plot is interrupted by the inevitable arrival of an angry Giunone/Juno, Giove’s long-suffering wife, leading to Calisto being turned into a bear and elevated into the heavens by the gods as the ‘Great Bear’ constellation.

Vocally this performance also featured some of the issues of Xerxess, with excessive vibrato and poor diction, although overall it was musically far more satisfying. Of the singers, I liked the performances from Katie Bray as Satirino, Adrian Dwyer as Linfea, George Humphreys as Giove and (in falsetto) Diana, and Nick Pritchard as Mercurio. A reduced group of instrumentalists from the Old Street Band made a reasonable effort at recreating the sounds of mid-seventeenth century Venice, with only what sounded like an electronic organ to provide a bit of a jar. Of course, with music of this era, the score is minimal, leaving the musical director to arrange the instrumentation, something Timothy Nelson did well.

Monteverdi ‘Ulysses’ Homecoming

The following evening saw the opening of ETO’s new production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, here given the more English friendly title of ‘Ulysses’ Homecoming’. As with Xerxes, it was directed and conducted by ETO’s in-house team of James Conway and Jonathan Peter Kenny, the latter on this occasion (mercifully, referring to my comments on his conducting style in Xerxes) out of sight of my seat. The set (as in La Calisto, by ‘takis’) initially looked awkward, with a diagonal screen drastically reducing the available stage space and a sizeable chunk of the rest taken up by a series of massive bows, waiting to be strung (or not) later. The screen later pivoted back to create a bit more space, but it still seemed

For the prologue, the upper three of six doors in the screen open to reveal Time, Fortune, and Love show their dominance over Human Frailty, enmeshed in a downstage fishing net. Rather confusingly, Human Frailty (Clint van der Linde) then transforms into Ericlea, Penelope’s nurse, as the latter bemoans the long absence of her husband Ulysses. The production develops in relatively traditional manner, avoiding the temptation to update the setting or the story.

Vocally this was perhaps the strongest of the three ETO operas, although yet again vibrato was a serious issue from many of the cast. At least on this occasion full textural surtitles (or, in this case, side-titles) made the earlier diction issues slightly less of a problem. As was the case in all three operas, acting was top notch from all the characters. Benedict Nelson was an impressive Ulysses, both in his tramp-like incarnation and his later revealing as Penelope’s long-lost husband. Katie Bray‘s  Minerva was good fun, while Carolyn Dobbin’s Penelope portrayed impressive stoicism.

I couldn’t see any of the instruments used, and the programme only listed the complete Old Street Band, rather than players and instruments for the individual operas. But in comparison with Timothy Nelson’s group for La Calisto, this sounded rather overdone in terms of instrumentation, with far too much going on at the same, drawing attention away from the vocal line, rather than supporting it. Jonathan Peter Kenny’s was occasionally rather laboured, lacking the finesse and delicacy that Monteverdi deserves. But, all in all, this was probably the best of the three opera, with La Calisto not far behind.

Whatever the shortcomings of these three operas in comparison to the standard of opera normally seen in London, the enterprise and organisation of English Touring Opera has to be admired. They now tour these three operas to Malvern, Bath, Harrogate, Saffron Walden, Snape, Buxton and Exeter, together with educational and community projects, including performing the Bach B minor Mass with a variety of local choirs.  Tour details here. In 2017 they offer Tosca and Patience in the spring, and the early music set of Rameau’s Dardanus, Handel’s Radamisto, and concert performances of Bach’s B minor Mass.

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