Handel at the Covent Garden Festival (16-26 May)

Clori, Tirsi e Fileno
Clori – Zoe Todd; Tirsi – Simon Baker; Fileno – Kathryn McCusker
Covent Garden Festival Orchestra conducted by Timothy Redmond
16 May 2001, Heaven, London

Partenope – Jeni Bern; Emilio – Stephen Rooke; Armindo – Diana Moore; Rosmira – Louise Mott; Arsace – William Purefoy
The Early Opera Company Orchestra conducted by Christian Curnyn
23 May 2001, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London

Alexander’s Feast
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Michael George (bass)
The Sixteen & The Symphony of Harmony and Invention conducted by Harry Christophers
26 May 2001, Peacock Theatre, London

Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 26 May, 2001
Venue: Heaven; Linbury Studio & Peacock Theatre, London

A local resident, as he was for most of the last fifty years of his life, the music of Handel has always played a considerable part in the annual Covent Garden Festival, now in its eleventh year. With a brief to celebrate the human voice in its myriad incarnations, the Covent Garden Festival casts its net far and wide – from Sullivan to Sondheim, from coloratura to cabaret. This year, most genres and composers have only been granted single billings, Handel has been represented by these three works, although not in the shape of two operas and a oratorio, as the publicity material implied – strictly speaking by one opera – Partenope; by one dramatic cantata – Clori, Tirsi and Fileno; and by one secular cantata – Alexander’s Feast. These distinctions are important.

This triptych offers music from three distinct stages of the composer’s career – from his early Italian period (Clori), from his reign as the undisputed master of ‘opera seria’ in London (Partenope), and from his post-operatic phase as the helmsman of the English choral tradition (Alexander’s Feast).

By the time the young Handel reached Italy in 1707, opera was under a papal ban; nevertheless the musical forms of opera – namely recitative and aria – were available through the medium of the secular cantata which proved a popular ‘substitute’, especially at social functions of the nobility. In May of 1707, Handel had joined the household of the Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli as composer-in-residence, living partly at the Bonelli Palace in Rome and on Ruspoli’s country estate fifty miles to the north. The myth-based Clori was Handel’s major composition for Ruspoli in 1707 and he followed it, a year later, with the sacred cantata, La resurrezione.

The story of Clori, such as it is, centres on the shepherdess Chloris, who enjoys the attentions of two shepherds, Thyrsis and Philenus, and does not wish to make a choice between them. When the men eventually discover the game she is playing, they renew their friendship. In fact, it is the piece’s finale, with its potentially ‘gay’ subtext, which appears to have inspired director Lee Blakeley to mount a staging of Clori in the somewhat unusual venue of the gay nightclub, Heaven, just off the Embankment, in the bowels of the entrance to Charing Cross Station.

Whilst Blakeley’s initial concept might be called vaguely inspired, what he then did, wasn’t. The director simply updates the fable’s quaint pastoral ambience to (guess what?) a nightclub, with Tirsi and Fileno cast as waiters, and Clori becomes a ‘clubber’. A so-called promenade performance, there was no space for patrons to prom – a packed first-night audience having to stand in conditions not dissimilar to the Tube at rush-hour, in a hot, airless auditorium. What there was to see mostly took place on a slightly-raised gantry. Another fatal flaw to Blakeley’s thesis was the necessity of having Fileno played by a woman, which somewhat defeated the shock-value afforded by the cantata’s somewhat outré conclusion.

The three young singers coped as best they could. Interest in Zoe Todd’s over-the-top ‘look at me, aren’t I a sexy slag’ portrayal waned after 5 minutes (Clori lasts 95!), though she pitched her music accurately enough. Kathryn McCusker ‘manfully’ took on Fileno though she was somewhat stranded from the accompaniment, while Simon Baker’s lucid countertenor came off best. (Baker can, incidentally, be heard to equally fine effect on the recently released London Handel Festival recording of Handel’s Silla where his voice can already withstand the comparison of singing opposite James Bowman.)

Unfortunately, with acoustic conditions not ideal, and with the singers often at some distance from the orchestra, ensemble was shaky throughout. Also, as Handel’s orchestra is hardly ‘Straussian’, it was a pity that the original scoring had to be pared-down. In his programme note, Handel scholar, Donald Burrows, draws attention to ‘the substantial instrumental ensemble, including recorders and archlute’. On his recording, Nicholas McGegan directs a band of 23 – in Heaven we were ‘treated’ to a limp-sounding 11, recorders, bassoon and archlute not employed. Overall, a valid experiment, but this Clori, Tirsi e Fileno ultimately seemed more like Handel in Hell rather than Handel in Heaven.

Twenty-four years after penning Clori, Handel wrote Partenope, coincidentally (if one includes the above-mentioned but seemingly never performed Silla) his twenty-fourth opera for the London stage. As with Clori, Partenope’s libidinous shenanigans are to the fore. By the time of Partenope, Handel had rejected the heroic libretto – evident in such works as Agrippina, Guilio Cesare, Tolomeo, Ottone and Ricardo Prima – for a more ironic and lighter form of sexual comedy. Queen Partenope too was an ancient – the founder of Naples – but in his opera, working to Silvio Stampigla’s libretto of thirty years earlier, Handel is less interested in Partenope’s dynastic status and far more in her ability to play-off the three men (not Clori’s two) vying for her affections.

The largely young-personed Early Opera Company, energetically led from the harpsichord by music director Christian Curnyn, has already enjoyed considerable success with its invigorating Handel-stagings in London. Yet, this Partenope only succeeded intermittently. Part of the problems originated with director/designer Netia Jones’s modern-dress approach in which she replicates the boardroom and combat-gear clothing used by Peter Sellars in his far more effective Glyndebourne production of Handel’s late oratorio Theodora.

There at least Sellars had the logical premise of Theodora and her early Christians as combat-clad freedom-fighters against the ‘besuited’ Roman police-state. In Jones’s Partenope this concept seemed to be there for decoration only. Still, in the Linbury, it all looked clean and elegant and provided some sort of context for the action. Jones is at least sharp on her portrayal of motive and draws some good, alert acting from the small and energetic cast, even if the end results don’t come over as particularly funny, or sexy. Jeni Bern made a pleasing and alluring Partenope, and she sings well too, although not all her words came across. Stephen Rooke proved a staunch Emilio, with a well-rounded baritone voice; he made much of the potential comedy of his ludicrous Action Man part. Diana Moore shone in the trouser-role of Armindo.

A calamity befell this production at the last minute – Antonia Sotgui had to withdraw. Her role as the cross-dressing Rosmira was sung from the side of the stage by Louise Mott, valiantly stepping in at very short notice, whilst assistant stage-manager Natalie Hobday acted the part on stage: there’s often not much to ‘act’ in three hours of Handel even if one is singing – to do it mute must be almost more of a challenge. Hobday did brilliantly and maybe a future career as a mime-artist awaits her. As with Clori, the main honours of the night went to a countertenor. William Purefoy, as Arsace, a Guildhall School graduate is a rising young star to look out. The Early Opera Company Orchestra could have done with a more players – double rather than single viola and cello certainly – but the little band played buoyantly enough. It’s a pity about the dead Linbury acoustic – what should be a major, intimate, venue for small-scale opera in London sounds to my ears (five rows from the front on this occasion) as if it’s the Royal Albert Hall.

Talking of dead acoustics, the Covent Garden Festival’s other Handel offering – Alexander’s Feast – wasn’t aided by being presented on the stage of the Peacock Theatre. The CGF prides itself on its employment of unusual venues – but for Handel’s large-scale setting of Dryden’s Ode, one longed for a ‘normal’ venue rather than the dance theatre of Sadler’s Wells.A noted Handelian, Harry Christophers, with his fine choir (The Sixteen) and period-instrument Symphony of Harmony and Invention, finally brought genuine class and polish to Handel. Alexander Feast is a rather loose assemblage, without much in the way of the drama that characterises the ‘real’ oratorios composed around it – Deborah, Esther, Athaliah, Saul – but Christophers shaped it well in a well-prepared reading and drove the stanzas and various sections on with accruing impetus. The three soloists contributed top-notch singing, which was pleasingly augmented by the inclusion of two concertos (as Handel himself might have done) – that for harp (B flat) and one for organ (Op.4/6), lucidly executed by Maxine Eilander and Paul Nicholson respectively. A fine ‘Feast’ of Handel indeed – but not an Oratorio as its words do not tell of a religious narrative: Dryden’s Ode is to St Cecilia. Music’s Patron Saint was well rewarded here.

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