Handel’s Atalanta

Atalanta – Opera in three acts to a libretto anonymously adapted from Belisario Valeriano’s La caccia in Etolia

Atalanta – Ruby Hughes
Meleagro – Madeleine Pierard
Irene – Stephanie Lewis
Aminta – Tyler Clarke
Nicandro – Philip Tebb
Mercurio – Vojtěch Šafařík

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings

Christopher Cowell – Director

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 21 April, 2008
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

Handel’s Arcadian idyll “Atalanta” was written to celebrate the marriage of Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1736. Meant to concern shepherds and shepherdesses, disguised identities, devious practices and undeclared love with a happy denouement, it was in this production updated to the present, with the sorts of young people one sees in every town, with mobile phones and all.

That aspect of Christopher Cowell’s production did not worry me, but I was not pleased by the number of distractions while someone was singing an aria. They diverted the audience’s attention from soloist and music. If I were a singer dealing with an intricate aria while an extra or another character was drawing attention I should feel insulted. Irene’s pram-pushing friend was annoyingly intrusive and unamusing. The final scene, that of Mercurio’s entry, was filled with reporters, photographers and hair-stylists, leading the audience to look at them rather than concentrate on Vojtěch Šafařík’s smooth singing and Handel’s music.

Two pairs of lovers are involved: Atalanta and Meleagro, Irene and Aminta. Meleagro, originally a king masquerading as the shepherd Tirsi, was created by the castrato Gioacchino Conti, the only castrato for whom Handel wrote a top C (in ‘Non sarà pace’ at the end of Act One).

Madeleine PierardIn this performance we heard New Zealander Madeleine Pierard: assured, confident, very convincing as a young man. She dealt with Meleagro’s complex arias splendidly, her voice rippling though the intricate settings with suppleness and purity of tone. The aria ‘Tu solcasti il mare infido’ must be among the most brilliant of Handel’s compositions. Pierard dazzled in it, yet the steady line of her ‘Care selve’ showed her equally at home in graceful music. Hearing her for the first time, I was very impressed and shall certainly look out for her. Justice asks for a fine future for her.

Ruby HughesRuby Hughes brought rounded tone and variety of shading to Atalanta. She too dealt with the fioriture admirably, yet her soft singing was most effective in pensive arias. She and Pierard complemented each other successfully, making their duet ‘Caro! Cara!’ most pleasing on the ear. How good it was to hear them without distractions, so one could concentrate on what really matters.

As the second couple were mezzo Stephanie Lewis and tenor Tyler Clarke. Lewis was the tiresom Irene. One could imagine this modernised version as an ASBO-carrying slut who, at the taxpayers’ expense, would produce six children by five men. I disliked the director’s metamorphosis of the character, but Lewis played the part horribly convincingly. She sang with a warm sound, fluent, but more variety of tonal colour would have been welcome. Clarke’s voice has some meat to it. it is a lyric tenor but by no means English-effete. His Aminta was a churl, realistically conveyed by Johnson, who sang with easy emission. Like the others, he sang cleanly with no aspirates.

Nicandro and Mercurio are lesser parts, with the former allotted two arias, the latter only one. Philip Tebb’s warm bass found Handel’s flowing lines conducive, while his Czech colleague, with a slightly lighter sound, had the necessary vocal flexibility.

One can rely on the London Handel Orchestra and Laurence Cummings, without taking either for granted, to produce style, skill and attractive sound. They contribute much to the annual London Handel Festival. Musically, both vocal and orchestral, this was an uplifting evening, with singers and players serving Handel well.

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