London Handel Festival 2006 – Tolomeo

Tolomeo, Rè di Egitto [Bärenreiteredition edited by Michael Pacholke]

Tolomeo – Patricia Orr
Seleuce – Katherine Manley
Alessandro – Christopher Ainslie
Elisa – Laura Mitchell
Araspe – Kostas Smoriginas

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings

James Conway – Director
Michael Vale – Designer

In collaboration with the Benjamin Britten International Opera School and English Touring Opera

Reviewed by: Erwin Hösi

Reviewed: 15 May, 2006
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

“Tolomeo” is an overlooked masterpiece if ever there were one. In 1728, Handel had three of the great vocal stars at his disposal: Senesino (cast as Tolomeo) and the two ‘Rival Queens’, Francesca Cuzzoni (Seleuce) and Faustina Bordoni (Elisa).

This is an opera that has it all: shockingly desperate lamenti, heartbreaking duets, fury of cataclysmic dimensions and cheerful tunes to whistle on the way home. It is thus quite a surprise that so far there has only been one (rather brilliant, and period instrument) recording of this opera (only available through the Halle Handel Festival). This makes the present production welcome indeed – and made minor points of criticism to appear less crucial.

The stage-setting is one such point – with its bleakness – an obscure, heavy, wooden object in front of an untreated plywood background that offers several surprise doors – is almost a cliché of a 1990s’ staging. Yes, there is also an evil character with a long leather coat and pomaded hair. In the costumes, the reference to modern-day poverty is made quite obvious. The suffering couple, Tolomeo and Seleuce, are dressed like squatters; Alessandro is the friendly blue jeans-and-T-shirt type; Araspe is the sinister pimp. By contrast, the protected Elisa wears an ostentatious white dress. Whether there is a bit of sexism in contrasting the protected upper-class woman with the ‘poor’ declassed foreigners in this way must be decided by the individual.

To the music, and a number of fine performances that went beyond what one would expect from a student cast. Whether the names of the soloists will endure the passing of time as well as those of Handel’s original cast cannot be answered, but a pleasantly entertaining rendering was given by all. Patricia Orr’s expressive mezzo-soprano appeared a little shaky in the first, technically challenging aria, but reached real heights in the more sombre scenes. Her performance of ‘Stille amare’ , in which her suicidal character thinks she has been poisoned and prepares to die, marked the climax of the evening.

The most charming of the voices was countertenor Christopher Ainslie. Alessandro is a secondary character, but his are some of the most beautiful arias, like ‘Non col di labbro’. The sheer quality of his voice and technique makes him one of the most convincing performers. The two sopranos were good ‘queens’, the one gloomy and suffering, the other cheerful and tyrannical.

Katherine Manley as the suffering wife in search of her exiled husband had slightly more radiance than Laura Mitchell as Elisa, whose fury could have had a little more force. By contrast, the barbarian tyrant Araspe was forcibly portrayed by baritone Kostas Smoriginas. His performance at times appeared almost too strong to fit into a galant Handel scenario.

Despite these criticisms, the soloists gave attractive performances throughout, as did the accompanying ensemble, which, colourful as the score was, seemed somewhat subdued. The whole adds up to a worthwhile evening and a rewarding rendering of a work that deserves to be much better known.

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