If I hadn’t been asked at short notice to play the alto flute in an orchestral concert, I would as usual have heard Cast A in this year’s London Handel Festival production of the pasticcio,Giove in Argo. From what I gather, I unwittingly picked the right night to attend. Assuming there are still tickets available for Thursday 26th March to hear Cast B, I would urge you to snap them up right now. All the singers in this cast had something unique to offer and each managed to shine in at least one aria, sounding like talented postgraduates from the International Opera school should do. But for this critic three of the singers are already stage animals, primed and ready to take principal roles on international platforms. The first of these is the mezzo, Kezia Bienek. From the moment of her first appearance as Iside, this young woman impressed me with her stage presence. I loved her performance last year as Tauride in Arianna in Creta and this year I felt she commanded the stage for the first two acts. It is a big voice with a vibrato she needs to keep under control, but as the noble, rather tormented Isis who is briefly distracted by the charms of Giove disguised as a shepherd, I thought she offered a brilliant showcase of fiery coloratura, a comic, flirtatious interplay with Giove in “Taci, e spera” and warmth and beauty of sound in melancholy, plaintive arias. It is almost a shame she is joining the Glyndebourne chorus, having already been identified as a budding principal by both ETO and Wexford. I know there are some good, reliable mezzos out there, but I feel Ms Bienek has something extra. The second (perhaps) unexpected pleasure was in the form of the Hungarian tenor, Gyula Rab. Reviews of his Tamino describe him as a ‘handsome’ singer. He is clearly already a fine Mozart tenor, but also made his professional debut at Wroclaw Opera last year in Peter Eotvos’ most recent opera. Here he played Arete, (Giove disguised as a shepherd,) playing merry havoc with the hearts of two young women who are already spoken for. Mr Rab is a very fine lyric tenor already, with a little hint of strain just at the very top of his voice, otherwise very much a tenor to watch. He gave an impressive portrayal of Nijinsky’s “faune” combined with Shakespeare’s Oberon, weaving a web of intrigue around the unwitting mortals and nymphs. The most exciting revelation of all was the singing of Russian, soprano, Galina Averina. Those of you who have heard Julia Lezhneva sing opera seria – most recently in reconstructed Vivaldi at the Barbican and previously in the Cencic production of Hasse Siroe – and been thrilled by her ability to negotiate high speed, stratospheric coloratura should be pleased to hear Ms Lezhneva now has a rival of some stature. Ms Averina, who recently graduated from the Welsh International Academy of Voice, is a student at the International Opera School, despite having already undertaken a couple of seasons as a soloist in the Perm Opera Theatre in Russia. As Calisto she offered the finest, controlled Handel singing of the evening, with a pure, almost old-fashioned voice. Her high coloratura was stunning, as was the artistry and musicality of her more sustained singing. For me what distinguishes this Russian soprano from t’other is that Ms Averina acts her socks off, even when hanging from a tree like the crucified Christ. That leads me neatly to my feelings about the production. James Bonas sets this sylvan tale in semi-darkness in a sinister post-apocalyptic wood populated with metal poles bearing footrests for climbing. The chorus is dressed for the most part in beanie hats, harem pants and brown turtleneck pullovers or tight vests, but with poles on their backs instead of the rifles a Nordic Combined competitor would wear. I have no objection to metal poles per se, just to the fact these young singers were required to clutch them behind their backs while trying both to sing and move around the stage. At one point both the men and women of the chorus reappeared with the hoops and bustles of 18th and 19th century women’s undergarments strapped to those harem pants. Ms Bienek had to sing her first aria whilst crawling on her stomach across the stage, as if she were participating in an assault course. Meanwhile Ms Averina had to strip down for a sponge bath whilst standing in large soap dish and then had to sing coloratura with her arms tied in “the crucifixion position.” Clearly the Royal College’s International Opera School hopes to place most of its graduates in German houses run by the enfants terribles of regietheater. Once you’ve performed in a Handel opera at the Britten Theatre, you are ready for anything. I do draw the line at the scene in which Arete/Giove was required by the director to kick Iside in the stomach whilst she lay on the floor. This smacked too much of the ETO school of verismo which I find anachronistic and frankly gratuitous in baroque opera. Max Cencic in his first production of Hasse Siroe gently mimed the use of whips in flagellation, conveying the message without crossing the boundaries of good taste. Musically of course, in the more than capable hands of the consummate Handelian, Laurence Cummings, this was a superlative performance. Giove in Argo, like Catone is a Handel pasticcio, but, with the exception of two arias by Francesco Araja, is what is known as a self-pasticcio. In other words instead of using the framework and recitative with selected arias by a composer other than oneself and substituting the latest hit songs by a range of other contemporaries, in this case Handel borrowed from his own music. Conversely, whereas manuscript copies of Catone have survived, it took considerable scholarship and compositional ability on the part of Professor John H Roberts to reconstruct Giove. Unlike Catone which is indisputably opera seria, Giove is a baroque pastoral, perhaps more akin to a serenata than the “serious” moral tone of usual Handelian opera. Giove is a creation from the end of Handel’s campaign to bring Italian opera to a British public, before his attention turned instead to oratorio. Compared with a decade earlier, Giove contains many more choruses than one expects as well as a significant number of accompagnati. As in any pasticcio, it is the great numbers such as “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Alcina and “Combattuta da piu venti from Faramondo which shine out from the score like precious jewels, but there are also some fine hunting choruses which set the scene in Diana’s rather gloomy forest. The chorus of five women and three men worked very hard indeed to make their contribution to the show, despite the indignity of the costumes. Their ensemble was very good indeed. It was a particular treat to have them sing from the side and the back of the auditorium at times. It did seem a little strange that they were bottom-heavy chorally, but two of the three men were singers of some stature – both physically and vocally. For baroque opera anoraks, this opera is worth hearing because the two “borrowed” arias give a rare insight into the music of Francesco Araja who was maestro di Capella at the Russian court – that and the fact I think I had a full house on my Opera Seria Bingo sheet by the end of Act One (all those shepherds, nightingalesAll it takes is a few more pasticcii and we should be able to piece together a map showing opera seria in the 18th century – Conti, based in Vienna, revived by La Nuova Musica, Hasse, based in Dresden, who is being resurrected by a number of Europe’s finest ensembles. The next treat will be “The London Bach’s” treatment of Adriano in Siria, courtesy of The Classical Opera Company. Wait a moment while I get my anorak….
Photos: Chris Christodoulou