Tuesday, 21 March 2017

A problem no more: William Relton's production of Handel's Faramondo at the London Handel Festival

Kieran Rayner, Harriet Eyley - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Kieran Rayner, Harriet Eyley - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Handel Faramondo; Ida Räntzlöv, Harriet Eyley, Beth Moxon, Josephine Goddard, dir: William Relton, cond: Laurence Cummings; London Handel Festival at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 13 2017
Star rating: 4.5

A vivid re-invention of one of Handel's problem operas, in a brilliantly theatrical 1960s setting

Beth Moxon, Ida Ränzlöv - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Beth Moxon, Ida Ränzlöv - Handel: Faramondo
London Handel Festival (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Handel's 1737 opera Faramondo was never going to be that high on anyone's list, even the great Winton Dean described the plot as a 'whirlpool of inconsequence'. But the role of festival like the London Handel Festival is to explore all the composer's music, and this year's festival opened on 20 March 2017 at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre with William Relton's production of Faramondo, giving us a valuable chance to reassess the opera by experiencing it on stage.

William Relton directed, with designs by Cordelia Chisholm and lighting by Kevin Treacy, and Laurence Cummings conducted the London Handel Orchestra, leader Oliver Webber, with Ida Räntzlöv as Faramondo, Harriet Eyley as Clotilde, Kieran Rayner as Gustavo, Beth Moxon as Rosimonda, Josephine Goddard as Adolfo, Timothy Morgan as Gernando, Harry Thatcher as Teobaldo, and Lauren Morris as Childerico.

Part of the problem with Faramondo is that the original libretto by Apostolo Zeno from 1699 reached Handel in mangled form and he trimmed it further, removing over 700 lines of recitative, Like Il trovatore the opera starts in the middle of the plot, and relies heavily on events in the past. William Relton's brilliantly theatrical production re-invented the piece as 1960s gang warfare with Ida Räntzlöv's Faramondo the leader of leather clad rockers, Kieran Rayner's Gustavo as a night-club owning mod and Timothy Morgan's Gernando as the leader of a gang of skin-heads. Relton brought out the vividness of the action, and kept the pace moving bringing to mind the opera's similarities to soap opera.

The key to appreciating such opera seria is not to worry about narrative logic but to savour that different emotional binds that the characters are put into. By 19th and early 20th century operatic logic, the libretto is hopelessly obscure and the characters lack detailed motives for their actions. But Handel's audience would have worried less about this, and would have relished the chance to see a scene between a father threatening to kill his son, a woman torn between hatred and love for her brother's killer, a tender duet between to lover's destined for execution. That none of the scenes followed logically on from the other, would have worried them less.

Relton and his cast gave the opera the virtue of taking it seriously, and by setting it in the world of young gangs, the characters' impulsive actions jarred far less. Cordelia Chisholm's designs kept up the pace, she used a drop curtain frequently to mask the scene changes so we moved seamlessly between Gustavo's seedy club to a world of dark alleys. Relton and Chisholm ensured that we knew exactly who these characters were (something which the libretto's terseness makes difficult).

Faramondo was one of the few role Handel wrote for the great castrato Caffarelli, one of the greatest singers of the age but whose one London season was less than successful. He was a soprano castrato with a great facility for instrumental-like divisions. Mezzo-soprano Ida Räntzlöv both looked and sounded the part, creating a convincing persona as a young rocker; it helps that Räntzlöv is tall, and on this showing roles like Handel's Ariodante surely beckon. She also showed a nice combination of personality and skill in Handel's complex vocal writing. None of the arias in Faramondo is quite knock-out Handel, but plenty are first rate and Ida Räntzlöv clearly relished them, whilst keeping a sense of character too.

Ida Ränzlöv - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Ida Ränzlöv - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Faramondo's love interest is Rosimonda (Beth Moxon), the sister of the man Faramondo murdered just before the opera started, and a woman who has taken a vow to revenge herself on her brother's killer. Rather inconveniently the two fall in love. Moxon portrayed Rosimonda as a night-club singer, a floozy with a heart. She brought out the conflicted nature of the role; all comes right in the end but we need to believe in the way Rosimonda and Faramondo blow hot and cold for three acts. Along the way there were some powerful moments including a delightful duet (one of two in the opera). The role did not always seem to have been written quite comfortably for Moxon, but she showed a strong theatrical instinct, appealing to our sympathies.

The other couple is equally conflicted. Adolfo (Josephine Goddard) is Gustavo's son, the brother of the man Faramondo killed, but Adolfo is in love with Clotilde (Harriet Eyley), Faramondo's sister. Events put a series of obstacles in Adolfo and Clotilde's way and Goddard's Adolfo got to show his essential nobility in a series of difficult circumstances. Handel gives the character some fine arias, and Goddard impressed with her grasp of Handelian style, and she was particularly moving in the tricky aria where Adolfo expresses his continuing love for the father who is planning to kill him. In Act Three Adolfo and Clotilde have one of Handel's profoundly beautiful duets, with both characters anticipating death.

Clotilde was first sung by La Francesina (Elisabeth Duparc) for whom Handel would later write the title role in Semele. The role is full of substantial and elaborate arias. Not all work entirely well in the dramatic context, but Harriet Eyley really grasped the opportunities offered to her, and faced with a performance of such engaging charm and vivid vitality, it is churlish to complain that the sentiments displayed in the elaborate roulades were hardly relevant to the dramatic action. Harriet Eyley had the gift of not just being able to sing the arias, but to make us believe in them, her gamine charm coming over and winning our hearts.

Timothy Morgan - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival - (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Timothy Morgan - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival
(Photo Chris Christodoulou)
The villains of the piece are all a bit of a disappointment, and Handel did this far better in other operas. Still Kieran Rayner blustered brilliantly as the monomaniacal Gustavo, focused on revenge on his son's killer to the exclusion of everything else. Timothy Morgan portrayed Gernando as a bit dim, and rather too fond of himself (he spent a lot of time combing his hair), which helped explain the character when Handel gives him rather soft grained arias despite Gernando being notionally the villain. Morgan sang his arias finely and if not eliciting sympathy, certainly got our attention. The real villain of the piece was Harry Thatcher's Teobaldo, but Handel gives Teobaldo just one aria. Thatcher sang well, but barely had the chance to develop the character. Lauren Morris as Childerico was similarly short changed, but she impressed.

The opera is full of orchestral moments, there is a fine overture, substantial sinfonias precede the second and third acts, and lots of the arias have large-scale ritornellos. Laurence Cummings and the London Handel Orchestra took advantage of all of opportunities Handel gave them, and one of the delights of the evening was hearing the vividly characterised playing from the orchestra. Cummings kept the music moving (important in an opera with some very substantial arias) without ever seeming to pressure the young singers.

I had heard and appreciated the 2014 recording of the opera from Göttingen (see my review) but this production still surprised me. Relton's production really made this tricky opera work as a theatrical event, his reinvented setting provided just the right dramatic context for the piece. Re-inventing Handel operas as modern drama only works if the fundamentals are understood, and here it helped that Relton had a sure hand with the opera seria form, whilst occasionally he cheered up arias with bits of business this was never overdone and he never obscured the music's form (exit arias were always exit arias). The whole cast immersed themselves in the drama with a will, and the various travestie roles (there were three Faramondo, Adolfo and Childerico) were well taken.

Faramondo will never be up on the list of Handel's top 10 but there is plenty of good music in the opera and this performance gave us a real chance to appreciate it. The London Handel Festival is celebrating 25 years of its collaboration with the Royal College of Music, so by my reckoning we have another 17 years before the two have worked their way through the entire Handel operatic canon!

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