Handel: Aminta e Fillide

Handel: Aminta e Fillide
Fair Oriana
Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte
The Handel Friends
St George’s, Hanover Square, 28 November 2019

It was entirely appropriate that this concert, given under the auspices of The Handel Friends, should take place in Handel’s own church of St George’s, Hanover Square, just round the corner from his surviving home. After 30-minutes of instrumental music and sumptuous interval refreshments (all part of the deal) came an inspirational performance of Handel’s pastoral cantata Aminta e Fillide, performed with the soprano duo Fair Oriana (Angela Hicks & Penelope Appleyard).

Aminta 4.jpegPenelope Appleyard & Angela Hicks (Fair Oriana)

The first half-hour was devoted to instrumental music by Piatti, Hasse and Handel, well played by the seven instrumentalists of Opera Settecento. Piatti’s rarely heard Oboe Concerto in g was an attractive piece with a particularly fine Largo and a funny little ending. Hasse’s Sinfonia in g was built on scurrying five-finger scales and had a very emphatic ending. Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op3/3 is from a collection of movements concocted by his publisher Walsh. On this occasion, the solo instrument was the flute rather than the more usual oboe. In the first and third pieces, the soloist on oboe and flute was Leo Duarte, the energetic and versitile director of Opera Settecento.

Handel’s youthful (1708) Aminta e Fillide (aka Arresta il passo) was written when he was just 22 as a commission from the Academy of Arcadia in Rome. The plot is as simple as it gets. Shepherd Aminta (Angela Hicks) falls for the hard-to-get nymph Fillide (Penelope Appleyard) and is rejected until ‘the blind god’ (Cupid) manages to change her mind. Only two characters and a succession of delightful arias makes for a very attractive hour of music. Those who know their Handel would recognise several moments as the Overture and some arias were reused by Handel in later operas, including Agrippina (1709) and Rinaldo (1711).

It was performed in June by the students of Guildhall School of Music & Drama in a fully staged and heavily directed presentation (reviewed here). On that occasion, I commented that “This typical bit of Arcadian nonsense has just two singers. It could have been performed with no more than a pot-plant to suggest the Arcadian backdrop to this tale of what we would now consider as obsessive stalking.”

This performance was the complete opposite, with no more than a couple of pot plants to suggest the Arcadian backdrop and a simple concentration on the two singers. A key feature of the performance was the use of Baroque gesture, assisted by Gesture Coach, Ian Caddy. Although I have seen some operas using period gesture, I have generally found them toe-curlingly awkward. But this was a delight. The two singers of Fair Oriana were completely natural and, indeed, elegant in their use of the stylised hand and arm movements. These were most often used in the recitatives where the emotion of the unfolding plot is expressed. The arias generally followed the known period practice of being sung directly to the audience, with a relatively static posture, as the singer reflects on the philosophical undercurrents of the plot. During each aria, the non-singing singer generally struck and maintained a pose, with occasional changes of facial expression to suit the words.

Vocally, Angela Hicks & Penelope Appleyard were as close to perfect ‘early music’ singers as you can get. Their beautifully clear, focused, fluid, agile and unforced voices, with little or no interfering vibrato, spot-on intonation, and clear diction were combined with exceptional communicative skills, notably during the arias when they directly involved the audience. Their use of stylistically appropriate ornaments and da capo elaborations were excellent. Given the limitations of the period-inspired performance, they also seemed to be fine young actors. Their facial expressions were often easier to see than their gestures, so were an important part of portraying the emotion of the moment.

Aminta 3.jpegPenelope Appleyard & Angela Hicks 

Curiously, given that it was written by the Stage Director, Brian Robins, the programme note stressed that 18th-century performances would not have involved such a person. Any staging was likely to have been in the hands of the librettist, conductor or the performers themselves. Unfortunately, the only issues I had with the entire evening were with some aspects of the stage direction, whether or not they were based on any period style.

The performance was in a typical Georgian London church with a shallow stage area between the collegiate choir stalls, but otherwise with a flat floor and the audience in the Victorian box pews. Rather than putting the two singers on the, admittedly small, stage, the orchestra took that elevated place, the director left the singers at floor level where most of their hand and arm gestures, so key to these performances, were difficult to see for a large section of the audience. They also spent some time sitting down, making visibility even more of a problem.

The other key aspect of the direction was that there were occasions when the attitude of the singers did not seem to match the libretto. The principal example of this was the response of Fillide to Aminta’s early advances. In the initial stages of the cantata, Fillide’s refers to the shepherd Aminta as “raving” and “disposed to madness” as “harshly and cruelly I drive you from my heart”, finally pleading with him to “leave me in peace”. The Guildhall version showed this brilliantly, which I described thus – “Aminta is the sort of irritating loser who latches onto the most attractive girl in school. Fillide goes further than playing hard to get, being ruthlessly dismissive of the little twerp”.

However, in this staging, Fillide was positively flirtatious with Aminta, casting cheeky little looks over her shoulder at the poor chap in a cheeky little dance during her (admittedly sprightly) aria Fiamma bella (a singing competition favourite, in its later incarnation as E un incendio fra due venti in Rinaldo) with further teasing in Fu scherzo. No wonder he kept trying! I suppose you could, arguably, interpret the plot as a flirtatious nymph teasing a susceptible shepherd, but that is not how I read the libretto. It also rather reduced the effect Fillide’s mid-opera change of mind, which happens during the aria Sento che il Dio bambin.

Another directorial aspect that I wasn’t too sure about was Brian Robins’ plea to the audience to “make their views” known during the performance. Although there is plenty of evidence of 18th-century audiences in London making their views (for and against) known in operas, I am not if that also applied to the rather more up-market attendees at Rome’s Academy of Arcadia. However, on this occasion, the very British polite applause after a random selection of arias rather interrupted the flow, particularly when a recitative flowed directly from an aria, as it often did. It also left the singers in some rather awkward frozen poses.

Leo Duarte kept the players of Opera Settecento on a suitably tight rein, keeping a natural flow to the music. There were particularly noteworthy contributions from violinist Dominika Fehér and the continuo pair of cellist George Ross and harpsichordist David Gerrard. Ian Caddy deserved particular credit for his contribution to the gestures but, curiously, he was not invited to join the final bows. But the undoubted stars of the evening were the two young singers of Angela Hicks and Penelope Appleyard. Whether in their duo formation as Fair Oriana, or on their own accounts, they are young singers to watch out for.