Thursday 6 March 2014

Handel's Arianna in Creta at the London Handel Festival

Tai Oney and Elliott Ross, Handel's Arianna in Creta: London Handel Festival at the Britten Theatre. photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Tai Oney and Elliott Ross
photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Handel Arianna in Creta: London Handel Festival: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 5 2014
Star rating: 4.5

An imaginative and finely unfussy staging of one of Handel's rarer operas

Handel's Arianna in Creta was a big hit in Handel's lifetime. It was written in 1733 just before Alcina and Ariodante with Handel using the same two leading singers all three operas. But Arianna in Creta has not had comparable success in the modern era and the London Handel Festival's production at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre was a most welcome opportunity to experience the opera in the theatre. It was directed by Selina Cadell, in designs by Simon Bejer and conducted by Laurence Cummings. The opera was double cast, from singers from the Royal College of Music's International Opera School. We saw the third performance (5 March) with Soraya Mafi, Tai Oney, Maria Ostroukhova, Anna Rajah, Bradley Travis Kezia Bienek, Matthew Buswell and Elliott Ross.

Handel based his opera on a libretto which had originally been written in 1715, though he seems to have been using a later adaptation as his source. As happened a lot in Handel's later operas the recitative was cut back to the bone; so much so that Arianna in Creta has an uneven plot even by Handel's standards. But he clearly wasn't much interested in the dramatic logic of the plot. He missed off the original libretto's opening scene which means that Arianna in Creta starts with the dramatic coup of the Athenian prisoners arriving in Crete, but leaves the audience needing to read the printed Argument to follow the plot. Subsequent sections of the narrative have significant holes as well. Handel's interest seems to have been in using the old libretto to explore the philosophical point that love and steadfastness will overcome barbarism and cruelty. Each of the major characters has a role to play in this argument, and each has a journey to make.

Inevitably, producing such an opera on the modern operatic stage might lead to all sorts of directorial remedies in order to make the opera function according to modern dramaturgical concerns. In a period when we have had a number of Handel's opera seria staged with a high degree of directorial intervention, it is pleasing to be able to report that Selina Cadell takes the opera very much on its own terms and she clearly was working within the conventions of opera seria.

Amy Williamson, Anna Rajah, Soraya Mafi, Tai Oney in Handel's Arianna in Creta, London Handel Festival at Britten Theatre, photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Amy Williamson, Anna Raja,
Soraya Mafi, Tai Oney
photo credit Chris Christodoulou
The opera opens with Teseo (Tai Oney) leading the Athenian captives to Crete. His beloved Arianna (Soraya Mafi) is already there, having been sent with a previous group of captives. Also in the captives is Carilda (Maria Ostoukhova) who is in love with Teseo. The Cretan champion Tauride (Kezia Bienek) becomes infatuated with Carilda. Teseo announces that he is going to go into the Labyrinth to fight the Minotaur, and Arianna is convinced he is doing it not for glory but for love of Carilda. Carilda is loved by the Athenian Alceste (Anna Raja) whose presence on Crete causes added complications. The opera explores the way these characters interact under stress and have their constancy tested.

Handel made two innovations in his version of the score. Act two opens with Il Sonno, the God of Sleep (Matthew Buswell) spurring Teseo on by revealing in a dream his future glory, and act one has spectacular breaking of the stone on which the agreement between Athens and Crete is written. For this latter, Handel prescribes a group of Cupids to pull the stone apart. Cadell and her designer Bejer gave us the breaking of the stone, but omitted the cupids. Cadell however seems to have taken the idea of cupid, and there was an extra character Cupid (Elliott Ross). During the overture Ross and Buswell enacted the necessary Argument using shadow puppets and throughout the action Ross's Cupid was highly involved, giving Cadell a neat solution to any dramaturgical inconsistencies.

Bejer had designed a flexible two level set, and used the image of the broken stone (in fact a set of steps) throughout the opera as an imaginative design reference. Costumes were an imaginative combination of ancient and modern, with Bejer making much use of having images of ancient statuary printed on modern shirts. This meant that Bienek's Tauride was wearing a tunic printed with a naked male statue. The results looked very striking and made imaginative use of what was probably a limited budget.

Selina Cadell is perhaps best known as an actress, but she also teaches at the National Opera Studio and has staged opera scenes there. Here production had an unfussy directness which is rather unfashionable at the moment, but which had the admirable effect of focussing the drama onto the music. During the arias the remainder of the cast remained generally stationary with minimal movements and the focus was always on the singer. The emphasis was on dramatising the music, rather than imposing an extra layer of dramatic narrative. This is an admirable way of presenting Handel's operas, but it requires an audience which appreciates Handel's music and wants to listen to it and places a heavy responsibility on the singers.

If any audience was willing to take Handel's music without the need for added visual entertainment, it would surely be that at the London Handel Festival. Cadell paid the audience the complement of taking their intelligence for granted, and this paid off; the audience reaction was focussed and enthusiastic. Similarly, she got nicely focussed performances from all of her singers, combining some superb singing with admirably dramatic presentation. Perhaps there were odd moments when the singers' youth showed, where a more experience performer might have done things differently, but overall this was a hugely impressive achievement. It takes a lot of skill to perform Handel like this, having a busy hyperactive staging does take some of the pressure off the singers.

The role of Teseo was written for the star castrato Carestini, for whom Handel would write the leading male roles in Ariodante and Alcina. Teseo was the first role Handel wrote for him, and the part had to be adjusted once Carestini actually arrived in England. Carestini was a mezzo-soprano and he specialised in singing in vividly virtuoso and rather instrumental manner. Handel gave Carestini a series of brilliant, bravura arias which do have the effect of making the guy seem something of a blustering idiot, more set on glory than his beloved. Carestini's roles for Handel lie quite high and are generally sung by female mezzo-sopranos nowadays, so it was pleasant to find the American counter-tenor Tai Oney singing the role.

Oney has a vibrantly warm voice, with a significant but tightly controlled vibrato. His vocal style is very much at the opposite end of the spectrum to the finely drawn cool line of many English counter-tenors and he will, I suspect, find himself exploring roles not always associated with the traditional counter-tenor. There was something nice-but-dim about Oney's Teseo, but Oney has an appealing stage presence and made Teseo work. It also helps that Oney was well able to cope (more than just cope) with the bravura arias. We did get a series of virtuoso show pieces, but Oney made them work dramatically as well. The role's two most interesting moments are the sleep scene in act two when, in an arioso Teseo falls asleep to receive a dream from Il Sonno, and the accompagnato and aria in act three when Teseo is in the labyrinth. Here Handel's imagination rose a notch, enabling Oney to give us some very fine performances indeed.

Arianna is not one of Handel's great roles. The first Arianna, Anna Strada del Po, would go on to create the title role in Alcina and Ginevra in Ariodante. Here she seems to have been lumbered with something rather chillier. Arianna combines passionate commitment with unreasoning jealousy and it is to Soraya Mafi's credit that we sympathised with the character and took her seriously. Mafi has a lyric voice with an appealing crystalline timbre and she brought out the rather febrile, intense quality to Arianna's music. Technically Mafi was superb and like Oney, brought great finesse to the demands Handel made. It is Arianna who concludes both acts one and two, the places where Handel gives us his biggest, meatiest arias. Mafi rose to the challenge and held the stage in a mesmerising manner.

Handel's company had a second castrato in it, a soprano this time, who sang Alceste and this meant that the role gets some of the most emotionally strong of the opera's music. The character doesn't change much, he remains steadfast in his love throughout the opera. Anna Rajah sang with a combination of technical finesse and a lovely vibrancy of tone. In a series of long arias she made Alceste really matter, when dramaturgically you could easily shorten the role of a few of its arias. The role's climax is the lovely, long aria with cello obligato in act three when Alceste is persuading Carilde to follow him. Here Rajah gave us singing of power, vibrancy and expressivity, wonderfully complemented by the solo cello.

Alceste's beloved is Carilda, and he being a soprano castrato means that her role lies lower. The original was sung by a contralto and though Maria Ostroukhova was billed as a soprano the role's tessitura held no problems for her. Ostroukhova was in fact from the other cast, but the billed Amy Williamson was ill and Ostroukhova went on in her stead. Ostroukhova has a lovely even, straight toned voice with a warm lower register, the sort of voice I could listen to singing Handel all day. She made the very best of her arias, singing with grace and poignancy, ably disguising the fact that Handel does not really seem to have been very interested in Carilda.

The role of Tauride was written for Margherita Durastantini, singing for Handel almost 30 years after their first collaborations in Italy. The role was written to disguise the fact that Durastantini no longer had the power or the range that she once had, but Handel does give Tauride some interesting music, though the character is far from the villain that he ought to be. Kezia Bienek sang with commitment and vibrancy, making the dramatic best of the arias and certainly putting them over vividly, including a wonderful aria with obligato horns.

King Minos (Bradley Travis) is very much a ceremonial character, but he gets a single aria which Travis despatched with admirably skill and cogency. Matthew Buswell made much of the small role of Il Sonno. As Cupid, the young actor Elliott Ross had a stage presence which charmed. Cadell's conception of the role could have been annoying, and Cupid was pretty ubiquitous. But Ross had a knack of appealing to the audience, and performing with a liveliness which never descended into caricature.

The chorus of Athenian slaves was made up of performers from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and they only got the one moment to shine in the final coro.

In the pit Laurence Cummings conducted the London Handel Orchestra in an account of the score strong on drama and technical finesse. The opera's overture is one of Handel's strongest, and they made this count even though they had competition from Ross and Buswell and their shadow puppets.

Arianna in Creta isn't Handel's greatest opera, but it contains some very fine music. Dramatically rather patchy, Selina Cadell's production paid the opera the compliment of taking it seriously and making it work on its own terms; I only with more directors had the courage to do so.
The London Handel Festival continues until 18 April, further information from the festival website.
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