Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Cambridge Handel Opera - Atalanta

Handel's opera Atalanta was written in 1736 to celebrate the marriage of Frederick, Prince of  Wales and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (the parents of George III). It is based on an existing libretto and is very thin on plot, clearly the main event at the premiere was the fireworks at the end. There were no real fireworks at the end of Cambridge Handel Opera's performance of Atalanta on 4 May 2013, but there had been plenty of the musical kind. Also emotions ran strong as conductor Andrew Jones took his bow, this was the final performance of the run and this will be Andrew Jones's final performance with Cambridge Handel Opera and after 28 years the group will cease to exist in its present form. The performance was a fine example of Cambridge Handel Opera's ethos, using Andrew Jones's own English translation, young professionals as soloists, students as orchestra and chorus, and production values which attempt to emulate the traditional stagings of Handel's day. Director Victoria Newlyn teaches movement and drama at RADA and her staging involved the use of period gesture with painted scenery by Tom Oldham.

The story, such as it is, involves Atalanta (Sarah Power) fleeing court and an arranged marriage to live the pastoral life and pursue her love of hunting. Her betrothed Meleagro (Erica Eloff) follows her to become a shepherd. The basis of the 'plot' of the opera is the way the two never quite manage to get things together. The delayed conclusion was a standard part of the opera seria plot armoury  with a series of obstacles put in the way of the rational solution, and Atalanta uses the device in spades.

The sub-plot is equally contrived. Shepherd Aminta (Mark Chaundy) is in love with Irene (Anna Huntley), and she with him, but not only has he asked her father's permission but has asked for pastures and flocks too. She is outraged that he does not love her for herself so she pretends to be in love with Meleagro. Handel radically cut down the number of arias for Irene and Aminta (Aminta was sung at the premiere by a young John Beard). This concentrated the musical action on Atalanta and Meleagro, though it left Aminta and Irene heavily involved in the plot.

You felt Victoria Newlyn too felt the thinness of the plot. Her production, though traditional and using a degree of period gesture, was rather over busy. Handel included a small chorus who play little dramatic role until the final celebrations. But Newly kept them on stage nearly all the time and arias took place against a background of movement. I have to admit that it was not as distracting as some productions that I have seen, Newlyn did not include gimmicks to keep the audience entertained. But there was a rather distracting amount of movement from the chorus.

She also introduced a degree of humour which is, I think, foreign to the piece. Handel's later operas do have their moments, but he is only ever satirical and never downright humorous. Newlyn took advantage of the fact that Huntley is a gifted comedienne to play the Irene/Aminta sub-plot for laughs. It didn't do serious violence to the plot, but it did smack of desperation in the face of this material.

Handel himself did not exactly coast through the piece, there is some lovely and some powerful music, but the drama never seems to have gripped him, as a result we are not drawn into the opera as vividly or as violently as we can be in the two operas he wrote just before AtalantaAriodante (which has a strong plot) or Alcina (which has a very strongly written lead character).

Unusually, for his hero and heroine Handel had a pair of sopranos as Meleagro was sung by a soprano castrato whose voice seems to have been genuinely soprano. This giving Handel some wonderful opportunities to intertwine the voices in the lovers' final duet. Along the way, both are cast down by love so both have stunning arias, long serious pieces with Handel making no attempt to write in the shorter more lyrical 'modern' style as he sometimes did in his later operas.

Both Power and Eloff brought a considerable amount of style, intensity and charm to their performances. With both of them it mattered not that the plot was thin, they convinced you with the vivid intensity of the moment. Both were technically secure and able to use complex lines for expressive purposes. Power was, perhaps, slightly less convincing in act one as the tom-boy huntress, but she was clearly not helped by the comedy stuffed boar she had to spear. Still she got many more chances to shine and to hold our attention magically. Eloff certainly had the physique du role, tall and slim with a voice to match, she made a glorious love-sick hero.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley was a delight as the love-sick and furious Irene. As I have said, Huntley displayed a fine comic talent and though I had doubts about the validity of some of the comedy, Huntley was real charmer. Her main aria was nicely done. Let us hope we hear her in other major Handel roles. Mark Chaundy suffered slightly from the fact that Aminta was the first role that Handel wrote for John Beard. His main aria includes highly elaborate fioriture of the sort that was unsuitable for Beard's robust voice, and the like of which Handel never wrote again for him. Chaundy did well enough with this passage and convinced elsewhere with his directness and robust charm.  Robert Gildon was quite intense in the small role of Irene's father.

The ending used a device rare in Handel, the Deus ex Machina. Mercury (Richard Latham) appears to bless the happy couple and weave in references to Frederick, Prince of Wales and his bride. Here, frankly, Handel seems to have been running on auto-pilot, though Richard Latham was very creditable in the role. Having Mercury appear in full Louis XIV fig and on a cloud was a brilliant idea, but Newlyn did not seem to be able to resist the temptation to develop the chorus's wonder into a myriad of unnecessary sub-plots.

We didn't get fireworks, but the beauties of Power and Eloff's duet at the end were sufficient indeed.

The chorus has a very small musical role but Newlyn made them work hard indeed for most of the opera. Here we detected a difference between the studied period gesture and innate naturalism which created an interesting visual tension in the performance. The young cast, however, entered into the drama with a will.

The small orchestra (23 players in all) gave a smart and stylish account of the score. And conductor Andrew Jones, very much the fons et origo of the event, elicited fine performances from his cast.

Historically informed stagings are always difficult and we have a long way to go before it is a mature as historically informed musical performance. But here Newlyn sympathetically utilised the creative tension between naturalism and historically informed, if only she could have remembered less is more.

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