Wednesday 11 July 2012

Buxton Festival - Too Hot to Handel

William Towers and Yvette Bonner in Too Hot to Handel
William Towers and Yvette Bonner
William Towers, in jest, suggested the title Too Hot to Handel to Christopher Monks of the Armonico Consort. Monks challenged him to come up with a programme and the result was a string of favourite arias, mainly for soprano or alto; they suggested the possibility of a plot. This would enable the arias to be sung in context rather in isolated concert fashion.

The result is a modern pasticcio, using modern English words in the arias to tell a story in two acts. The production, directed by Emma Rivlin, is being toured by the Armonico Consort and I saw it at Buxton Opera House on 10 July. The production is also going to London, Solihull, Crawley and Shrewsbury, more details from the Armonico Consort website.

A man (William Towers) and a woman (Yvette Bonner) meet, fall in love, argue, split up and are reconciled. The couple are aided and abetted by a quartet of chorus singers (Naomi Kilby, Joseph Bolger, James Savage-Holland, Alastair Merry) plus the Buxton Madrigal Choir.

Christopher Monks, who conducted from the harpsichord, and the ensemble (2 violins, viola, cello and 2 oboes) were on stage. Emma Rivlin's production, designed by Helen Stewart, used a single set (the man's flat) plus a plain drop which was set as various locations (park, rehearsal room, bar).

Whatever I might say about details of the production, I have to admit from the outset that it was very, very funny (and moving). It worked brilliantly and was extremely popular with the audience. There was no overture, instead as a prologue the woman (Bonner), who was an opera singers, sang Bel piacere from Rinaldo in Italian as a concert piece. The man (Towers) was in a theatre box and afterwards launched into a recit and the accompagnato Dall ondoso periglio from Giulio Cesare, still standing in the theatre box. Now here we encountered another feature of the production, one which would either bother you or not according to taste. The modern language, often very casual and contemporary, seemed at odds with Handel's music, deliberately so, creating deliberately bathetic effects and causing great amusement with the audience.

The first scene was set in the park, cue Ombra mai fu (from Serse) with the man suffering from a hangover (having drunk to forget the woman). The woman appears, lamenting the loss of her dog and distributing leaflets (Quanto diletto and Quando spieghi from Orlando). During this the man organises a search for the dog and it is finally found, descending from on-high attached to balloons (canus ex machina?). The dog was played by a hand puppet which everyone who held it articulated, a neat trick. This scene, though distracting from the musical performance, was extremely funny. Especially when, at the key moment, the chorus quartet on-stage and the Buxton Madrigal Choir (in the auditorium) launched into Hallelujah (from Messiah).

Towers in this first scene displayed a very fine, rich counter-tenor voice, nicely even throughout his range and with a good sense of line. Ombra mai fu despite much laughter and funny business, was very well sung. Bonner has a rather useful soubrette voice, her sound was slim with a nice line. It did not seem to be a voice which responded to pressure, but was useful in that she could essay a variety of styles. As the performance progressed it became apparent that Towers's arias generally stuck to the Senesino type repertoire, but that Bonner's varied more widely from soubrette to full blown dramatic.

The second scene was their first date. The man was preparing, by clearing his flat of rubbish whilst singing Va tacito (from Giulio Cesare), with the horn part transferred to oboe. Again, finely sung but with lots of very funny business (smelling socks to see if they were clean etc); I suspect most of the audience were paying attention to Towers's antics rather than to his lovely vocalism and fine passagwork.

The wooing was done to a pair of duets, Caro! Bella (from Giulio Cesare) and No, no chi'io non apprezzo (from Agrippina). This later was slow, lovely, rather sexy and quite, quite serious. One of Towers's aims in assembling the programme was to increase the number of ensembles; usually an opera seria would have two duets at most.

The stage chorus quartet came on as removers and sang O Love Divine (from Theodora), quite lovely.

Scene three was set in a rehearsal room as the man watched the woman rehearse and became jealous as she made stage love to the attractive baritone (Alistair Merry). For the rehearsal Merry sang Vieni O Cara (from Agrippina) in Italian with a nice line, slightly thin tone but with a lovely trill. For Tacero (from Agrippina) much fun was had with the many false ends provided by the Da Capo aria, especially as Towers sang it to the words 'I'll keep quiet'.

The scene then changed to the bar where a bit of banter between the attractive baritone and the woman re-ignited the man's jealously. All this was brilliantly set to the sequence from Poro where Poro and Cleofide quite the other character's arias back at them in a jealous rage. With the central duet beautifully and seriously sung this brought home the modernism of Handel's dramatic talent. The scene ended with the duet and chorus Caro Vieni (from Poro) with the Buxton Madrigal Choir now on-stage.

For the next scene, both the man and the woman bemoaned and lamented both their loved one and their separation. The man did so to Orlando's mad scene. Orlando is a role that Towers has sung to great success and here, modernising the words, he was in stunning form. There were moments of funny business (such as drinking a pint of 'vodka' down in one), but the essential pain of the situation was brought home intensely.

The woman sat at home flicking through the TV with the remote (cue a jukebox series of intros to various Handel arias) until settling on Piangero (from Giulio Cesare), sung quite small scaled but with immense pathos and some fine passagework in the middle section.

The two concluded with the duet So nata a lagrimar from Giulio Cesare. This was a beautiful piece, musically sung but rendered more poignant by being done in context.

For the finale, the couple again meet by accident in the park. First Towers sang Verdi allori from Orlando, then the two sange the beautiful duet Caro, Dolce from Poro. Finally we concluded with Ritorni omai del nostro amore from Giulio Cesare.

Both Towers and Bonner were on strong form throughout and I have nothing but admiration for this crisp playing from the small but hard-working band, under Monks direction.

This was perfect lunch-time festival fare, with the audience enjoying it immensely and many rejoicing at hearing familiar arias in a new context. The inclusion of the Buxton Madrigal Singers gave the staging a delightful local focus. My only complaint regarding the items chosen was a rather heavy dependence on Giulio Cesare and Orlando. But with so much lovely music, finely performed, who can complain.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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