It is always enlightening to hear the annual collaboration between the London Handel Festival Orchestra and the International Opera School of the Royal College of Music. I love the youthful enthusiasm of the singers, but it’s worth attending purely to hear British players under Laurence Cummings’ direction play with all the verve and discipline of the Ospedale della Pieta. Since we lost Christopher Hogwood, there is no one who can hold a candle to Mr Cummings’ scholarly yet vibrant interpretations of “the London Handel.” He drives each performance at a cracking pace, ensuring the drama never sags – absolutely in keeping with Handel’s “Reduced Shakespeare Company” versions of Italian libretti – a bit like a British driver test-driving a Porsche around Naples at rush hour.
Despite the excellence of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme, the House’s contract orchestra is a modern one, meaning opera with authentic instruments doesn’t form part of the training. Therefore this collaboration between the LHF and the IOS offers aspiring professionals the only chance in the UK to immerse themselves in the world of 18th century opera seria, the precursor of the much-vaunted bel canto, before they are whisked away to perform the endless Carmens, Traviatas, Bohemes and Magic Flutes which populate the schedules of most of the opera houses in the USA and Europe.
The costumes in Ariodante owed a lot to Mad Max – British grunge if you will. (If it was good enough to win Britain an Oscar, don’t knock it.) I must be getting soft because I worry about young singers performing under stage lights with greatcoats, thick pullovers and hiking socks. But then I also over-empathise with singers being asked to produce coloratura while sitting or even lying down and there was a fair amount of this (thankfully no crawling on the stomach whilst singing a Carestini aria this year.)
I was struggling with various aspects of the production until a friend pointed out that Ariodante is set in an Italian romantic fantasy of Scotland. It explains the clothes and the blasted oak. But why is the kingdom flooded in the third act? Is this a metaphor for “It never rains but it pours” in such a blighted kingdom, or typecasting Scotland as a place where it always rains? Why do members of the royal family feel compelled to stand on the throne rather than sitting on that comfy-looking sheepskin? Why, on a “Cieca notte” is there such a bright moon hanging low in the sky? Why was there a table containing water in the throne room? These questions were of course never satisfactorily answered, and frankly they ceased to matter once I had been bewitched by the Dream Cast I heard on the final night.
One much-used device of this production (directed by James Bonas and designed by Molly Einchcomb) which was highly effective was the drawing of three or four hemp curtains, to effect scene changes and sometimes to provide a glimpse as if through a window of one of the key protagonists engaged in a typical domestic task such as washing or sword sharpening. I’d much rather see singers drawing curtains in balaclavas than the ever-popular economy of getting your underpaid opera singer to move scenery. (If singers were MU members like the players in the pit, they could rightfully demand a doubling fee.) The choreography (Ewen Jones) was good. I assume he choreographed the curtain pulling which was beautfully co-ordinated and the fight scene worked particularly well when it was between two male singers. The lighting too deserves a special mention (Rob Casey) as it conveyed a sort of medieval gloom indoors and starry or snowy nights outside. The use of water ripples as a backdrop behind Ariodante was particularly effective. However there was ironic laughter from the audience when one member of the creative team fell flat on his face in the water before taking a bow. (Unlike the cast in their all-weather clothes, he was wearing a three-piece suit.)
Two casts are offered each year on alternate nights and normally there is at least one outstanding performer and at least one to watch in each cast. This year I attended the first night and the last. The two constants in both casts were Simphiwe Simon Shibambu as the King of Scotland and Joel Williams as Odoardo (the character Handel would have cut if Ariodante were a pasticcio.) Mr Shibambu has a wonderful, rich true bass voice which would be perfect for “Racks, gibbets.” He has already done a turn as Sarastro and as Mephistopheles. It is no surprise that he won the Southern Africa Opera Singing Competition in 2013. He had shattered his leg in a skii-ing accident, but his injury in no way detracted from his acting performance which was noble and compassionate by turns. Mr Williams has a fine, clear English tenor voice. Although it may not develop into a full-bodied operatic tenor, Mr Williams would otherwise be a casting director’s dream, being unusually tall for a tenor and fair of face.
The outstanding performances in the first cast came from Peter Aisher as Lurciano, a wonderful Italianate tenor with a scintillating upper register. This is a voice of jaw-dropping beauty and an open sound. This young man is also an intelligent, poised musician. I don’t say that because he graduated from Cambridge in Astrophysics, but because he gave such a beautifully-phrased, elegantly nuanced performance. One of my colleagues joked “Traviadante” after his first aria, so it is good to see from his c.v. that he is making steady progress from Mozartean operatic roles to two productions of Traviata this season. I would also urge the various Baroque and early classical companies to try this young man out in other Baroque roles because I think he brings something special to the table.
The other singer who stood out was Galina Averina as Dalinda. This young Russian soprano impressed me with her vocal flexibility and discipline in Giove in Argo last year. This year she has come of age, having developed her acting skills to match her vocal virtuosity. Of all the cast members, I would suggest Miss Averina is the one born to sing Baroque repertoire. I see I am not alone in my opinion as she will feature as Atalanta in this autumn’s Xerxes with English Touring Opera. Katie Coventry and Elspeth Marrow, the two girls playing trouser roles in the first cast, should be highly commended: Miss Coventry for giving this Carestini role her best shot, despite having a relatively light voice, with a terrific stage presence and fizzing energy; Miss Marrow for embodying a young, disaffected, convincingly male Polinesso by clever use of body language, although the role sat a little too low for her voice.
However, after the first performance (as you do) I found myself longing to hear a countertenor in both of the above roles, although Ariodante is probably best left to the ladies unless you are a three-octave phenomenon like Fagioli. So I was particularly looking forward to hearing Thomas Scott-Cowell take on the role of Polinesso in the second cast – and I was not disappointed. This young countertenor, a pupil of Laurence Zazzo, not only has huge potential as an operatic countertenor, but, like his mentor, has a convincing stage presence. I like the fact he was willing to go into his chest voice in order to project his vocal lines at a consistent volume throughout the range. His pitch is admirable and his coloratura excellent. He is definitely a talent I shall be watching with interest. Watching Xavier Sabata recently playing a villain in Handel at the Barbican I noted it is not easy for a countertenor to play a villain and still hit every note bang in the middle without distortion. Mr Scott-Cowell managed to avoid this pitfall by adding an edge to his voice where appropriate, in keeping with his sinister characterisation. His contribution to the fight scene was excellent. It is always a good start when a young artist learns how to die well.
Compared with the first cast, I was surprised and delighted to discover the cast on the last night didn’t have a single weak link. I had thought Miss Averina’s performance of Dalinda wouldn’t be bettered, but Marie Lys showed that this role can be taken by a more Mozartean lyric soprano or soubrette to great effect. Miss Lys has a very pretty voice and a delightful stage presence. She has already sung Lauretta and apparently the Queen of the Night. She is a very useful and attractive soprano with a tiny elegant stature, the perfect ingénue.
The Ariodante in this cast was Kamilla Dunstan. There was sufficient weight to her voice for her to be able to project when singing from a position upstage. Whilst not perhaps quite as convincing in a trouser role as Sarah Connolly or Emilie Renard (yet,) Miss Dunstan has a lovely, rich, focused mezzo which is flexible enough for her to tackle such a taxing role with great aplomb.
Thomas Erlank is another impressively tall tenor, again with the flexibility to sing Handelian coloratura with conviction despite having a truly powerful voice Just when I thought there was a dearth of tenors of heroic stature coming up through the ranks, the International Opera School has pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. Mr Erlank is another one to watch with great interest.
And finally the outstanding soprano from either cast took on the role of Ginevra and transformed the production from a good student effort to an evening of international calibre. Gemma Lois Summerfield won both the First Prize and the Loveday Song Prize at the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Awards. This is a young soprano with a huge voice which she manages to keep in check with consummate skill in a role which needs huge control and a wide variety of timbre. Her sotto voce is beautiful, she can “float” high notes when needed, sings pathetic arias with great pathos and angry/mad arias with total conviction. London audiences can next hear her in the Classical Opera Company’s Jomelli at Cadogan Hall. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear this rising star.
On a related note, Maria Ostroukhova, winner of the Michael Oliver Prize for singing Handel in 2015, gave a lunchtime recital in St George’s on the day of the last Ariodante performance, complete with the first-cast Ariodante in the audience supporting her. I have to say her interpretation of “Cieca notte” was more convincing than that of either of her fellow alumnae of the IOS. Miss Ostroukhova is fast developing into the next true Baroque contralto with a richness and power in the lower register which would make even Ewa Podles smile magnanimously.
Photos: Chris Christodoulos