Royal Opera House – Handel’s Arminio – Gabrielė Kupšytė, Sarah Dufresne, Josef Jeongmeen Ahn; directed by Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol; conducted by André Callegaro

Handel

Arminio – Opera in three Acts to an anonymous libretto after Antonio Salvi [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Arminio – Gabrielė Kupšytė
Tusnelda – Sarah Dufresne
Segeste – Josef Jeongmeen Ahn
Varo – Michael Gibson
Sigismondo – Isabelle Peters
Ramise – Kamilla Dunstan
Tullio – Kamohelo Tsotetsi
Segismero / Roman Soldier – Rich Gittins
Roman Solider – Jordan Cork

Early Opera Company
André Callegaro

Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol – Director
Noemi Daboczi – Set & Costume Designer
DM Wood – Lighting
Sacha Plaige – Movement


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 20 April, 2023
Venue: Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol’s new production of this rarity continues Royal Opera’s presentation of various stage-works by Handel that were premiered at its eighteenth-century predecessor at Covent Garden. The 1736-37 season was a busy one for the composer as he tried to shore up the flagging fortunes of his opera company in the face of opposition from a rival company and waning interest in Italian opera by the London public with no fewer than three new operas (the others being Berenice, revived by ROH in 2019 in conjunction with the London Handel Festival, and Giustino – another rarity which Handelians will eagerly await to staged anew).

Handel’s desperate rate of composition meant that Arminio (premiered in January 1737) is not his most musically inspired opera, and the libretto is a something of a hack job, with a somewhat truncated drama, and motivations and characterisations not always clearly delineated, on account of an attempt to appease the English audiences’ declining patience with reams of Italian recitative by cutting substantial parts of the original libretto. But Handel started to experiment with a punchier series of shorter arias and vocal numbers – some set in the newer, streamlined Neapolitan style – which he would continue in the semi-comic Serse and Imeneo, tantalisingly pointing the way forwards to a more fluid operatic structure that he might have explored further if his career as an opera composer hadn’t ended so soon afterwards in 1740-1 (the composition and premiere of Deidamia).

One intriguing point of interest in Arminio is that its central character spends most of the drama in chains. Also, rather than a constitutionally-established political leader – the usual type of opera seria hero – he is the more maverick chieftain (Arminius) of the ancient Germanic tribes. This opera is very loosely based upon his famous and violent confrontation with the Romans at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, causing him to become an icon down the centuries for German nationalism, to triumphant and tragic ends, despite few clear details in the sober and scanty historical record by Tacitus. (One may wonder what the German-born Handel felt about setting this quasi-myth dealing with almost a national legend.)

McNicol doesn’t take the quite so obvious or cliched route of setting this in any recent, post-Bismarck period of German history. Though presenting it as a Netflix-era thriller is probably not a much more original idea, and unfortunately there isn’t a great deal that is thrilling or gripping in this reinterpretation. The set usefully juxtaposes Segeste’s office with Arminio and his wife, Tusnelda’s bedroom – even if both are rather sparse, with drab curtains around them like a shower or hospital ward, the former somewhat like a last-days-of-Hitler bunker, the latter resembling a budget hotel chain suite, it visually represents in a contemporary manner the bold contrasts upon which Baroque opera thrives. In this case the conflicts in loyalty between political duty and emotional devotion are neatly and symbolically played out.

But choreographically the production sheds little light upon the drama itself – Arminio and Tusnelda are occasionally hustled around by not very fierce looking soldiers; and Arminio’s father-in-law, the besuited Segeste who has gone over to the Roman cause (for reasons never explained in the original or in this production) looks no more villainous than a businessman such as Alan Sugar in The Apprentice. Sigismondo (Segeste’s son) and his beloved Ramise – attired, 1990s style, in puffer jackets and baggy trousers – skulk around like teenagers, first appearing with bottles of alcohol in hand, slouching on the bare stage, as though at an illicit night-time tryst on a park bench. Often there is a flurry of activity by the characters or extras to incite some interest at the opening of arias, but that then fizzles out, creating very sporadic drama. Long, loud rumbles (like an aeroplane taking off) accompany Varo’s suicide near the end (in the original he is killed, offstage, by Arminio) which at least wakes up the audience in time for the curtain and applause, but otherwise that registers as too sensational in the context.

The cast of singers from ROH’s Jette Parker Artists scheme are serviceable. In Handel’s setting, Arminio is by no means a bravura role, and Gabrielė Kupšytė’s cool, stable performance doesn’t try to make it so. That partly suits his calm, courageous stand against the Romans and the treacherous Segeste, but as the central character of a Baroque opera, the interpretation surely still needs some more colour and vehemence. That comes with Sarah Dufresne’s impassioned Tusnelda, who refuses to accept the Roman general Varo’s wish to marry her should Arminio be executed; with Isabelle Peters’ vibrant account of Sigismondo (who deftly manages the coloratura of the Act Two aria ‘Quella fiamma, ch’il petto m’accende’ with equally florid oboe obbligato); and Kamilla Dunstan’s more furious Ramise. Segeste is powerfully projected by Josef Jeongmeen Ahn, though a touch raw at times, while Michael Gibson’s more considered Varo exudes authority. Kamohelo Tsotetsi as Tullio (Varo’s political advisor) somewhat clamours in his first aria, but ably demonstrates nuance in his second.

The Early Opera Company play at modern concert pitch rather than Baroque (around a semitone lower) apparently to bring a fresh approach to the work – though ‘fresh’ relative to what is unclear in a work as rarely encountered in actual performance as this. If anything, that slightly emphasises the weaker, straining timbre of the period style instruments instead of brightening the sound, so it will hardly enchant perfect-pitch HIP purists nor those who prefer modern performance conditions. After a fairly leisurely, directionless way with the Overture André Callegaro leads the ensemble in a reasonably spry interpretation of the arias and snappy recitatives, though that settles into a merely comfortable disposition without engaging idiomatically with the particular Affekt of each aria.

Within its limits, the production works well enough to show that – despite the lukewarm criticism of commentators in Handel’s day and in recent literature on his work – the opera is a tautly interwoven one with some appealing music that can be a functional drama (if not a masterpiece). Handelians will be grateful for the chance to see it. But this production probably has little to persuade or enthral general audiences very much.

Further performances to May 6

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