Saturday 1 August 2015

Handel's Serse from Longborough's young artists

Jake Arditti, Jon Stainsby, Lucinda Stuart Grant - Handel's Serse - Longborough Festival Opera - photo Robert Workman
Jake Arditti, with Jon Stainsby & Lucinda Stuart Grant in the background
Handel's Serse   photo Robert Workman
Handel Serse; Jake Arditti, Alice Privett, Tai Oney, Abbi Temple, Lucinda Stuart Grant, Jon Stainsby, Matthew Durkan, dir: Jenny Miller, cond: Jeremy Silver; Longborough Festival Opera at the Britten Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 30 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Lively night-club setting for Handel's opera, given by Longborough's young artists

Longborough Festival Opera is famous for its performances of Wagner in the Cotswolds, but the company's programme is wider than that. Each year they do a production with young singers as part of their young artists; programme, and this year's production of Handel's Serse came to the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music on Thursday 30 July 2015. Directed by Jenny Miller and designed by Faye Bradley with lighting by Dan Saggars and Andy Bird and choreography by Michael Spenceley, the production featured Jake Arditti as Serse, Tai Oney as Arsamene, Alice Privett as Romilda, Abbi Temple as Atalanta, Lucinda Stuart Grant as Amastre, Jon Stainsby as Ariodate and Matthew Durkan as Elviro. Jeremy Silver directed the period instrument orchestra led by Sijie Chen.

Jake Arditti - Handel's Serse - Longborough Festival Opera - photo Robert Workman
Serse, with its lively plot and at times satirical feel to the music, seems to invite directors to set it in an interesting manner whether it be Nicholas Hyntner's very post-modern take on Georgian England at ENO or James Conway's re-casting of the title role as wartime flying ace for English Touring Opera. In her note in the programme book director Jenny Miller points out that the libretto makes very little of the historical situation in Serse and concentrates, instead, on the personal relationships. Serse is an opera very much about love and trust.

So Jenny Miller, and designer Faye Bradley placed the action in a night club, which becomes Serse's new domain. The orchestra is placed on stage, in Bradley's fixed set, becoming the club band in what was a rather witty move. This new setting worked well with a young and lively cast, but it had the disadvantage of obscuring some of the action. The scene changes in the opera help point up what is happening, with Arsamene's banishment and so on, but with a fixed set we had to make do with a few tables being moved. If you don't know Serse the plot can seem complicated at first, but it does in fact have an unusual directness and clarity and this did not always come over. Listening to people chatting on the way out, I heard quite a number of misunderstandings of the plot.

Tai Oney, Alice Privett - Handel's Serse - Longborough Festival Opera - photo Robert Workman
Tai Oney, Alice Privett - photo Robert Workman
In many of Handel's opera serias, where the action takes place matters less than what happens on stage. Jenny Miller and choreographer Michael Spenceley had matched the quickness of Serse's dramaturgy (Handel keeps thing moving and uses far fewer da capo arias than usual) with a lively busy production. Almost everything that happened had a basis in the plot and character, and though the production style was busier and fussier than I like, I found that I rather enjoyed it. The verve of the performers matched the music and drew you in. But hyperactivity has its drawbacks and by the middle of the second half I was finding myself longing for a bit of calm, more moments when the entire cast were not in motion.

But the production process had clearly inspired the singers, and Jenny Miller drew some very fine performances from her young performers. The title role was written for the star soprano castrato Caffarelli. He seems to have made little impact in London and lasted only a season. But his voice was well into the mezzo-soprano range and performances of the title role by counter-tenors are a relatively recent phenomenon. But Jake Arditti seemed to have no problems with the tessitura, and he sang with a lovely evenness of tone throughout the range. Only a certain carefulness at the very top, and a hint of hardness creeping into the tone, suggested that it might take him to his upper limit. That said, there was never an ugly note and he had a remarkable expressivity even at the top of his range.

Once technical problems have been conquered, the role offers other challenges too. To make Serse work as a character, the singer needs to establish the essential irrational changeable-ness of Serse's character and combine this with a sense of authority. We must have a real feel that the others are on tenter hooks, never knowing what Serse will do and being afraid of him constantly. This Jake Arditti did rather well. His narcissistic preening Serse was a great delight, Arditti certainly knows how to hold an audience and it definitely helped that his performances of the arias was so technically secure, you were watching Serse rather than listening to what the singer might do next. It was  consummate performance, crowned with a stunning account of Serse's final rage aria. At this point Jenny Miller filled the stage with action but it didn't need it, Jake Arditti held our attention both vocally and visually.

Alice Privett, Chiara Vinci - Handel's Serse - Longborough Festival Opera - photo Robert Workman
Alice Privett, Chiara Vinci - photo Robert Workman
Alice Privett is a young soprano currently singing the lyric repertoire, but you sense that her voice is poised to go on a journey. There were moments during Serse when her singing in the very upper register seemed to have a slight element of instability in the tone, I realised that this was not so much because of a fundamental problem but more that a bigger instrument was waiting to get out. What it did mean was that we got a Romilda who was sung with richer, more vibrant tones than sometimes, which was a great advantage, and certainly the role's tessitura held no fears. The challenge for a singer playing Romilda is that within all the comic mayhem, she is the one who really suffers. Privett brought this out well, and really made the moment count when she tells Serse that if she marries him she will die. Privett brought real depth to the aria which followed, yet she balanced this tragedy with a nice lightness of touch.

The role of Atalanta is a gift to any soubrette soprano, she is one of Handel's sex-kittens (Winton Dean's description) and he seems to have brought his most charming music to such characters (think Poppea in Agrippina or Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare). Abbi Temple brought a nice perky charm to the role and a slim, light, bright voice with pinpoint accuracy. She developed a nice double act with Alice Privett and there was much to enjoy. But I felt that depicting the character as a school-girl was to reduce it, and something of Atalanta's outrageous charm was lost.

Longborough were lucky to be able to cast a second counter tenor as Arsamene, and in Tai Oney have a singer of a very high calibre but with a very different style voice to that of Jake Arditti. The result was to bring out the contrast between the two brothers as Handel intended (at the first performance Serse was played by a castrato and Arsamene by a woman). Tai Oney was a richly vibrant, quite vibrato laden voice which seems to be made for later romantic repertoire too. But he also has a surprising facility for Handelian fioriture so that he certainly never smudged things, and he used his voice to bring a strong sense of Arsamene's emotionalism into the music. This was a character with real trust issues, and Tai Oney made it work and made us feel sorry for him. Like Jake Arditti, Tai Oney seems to have a real flexibility of tessitura and some of his da capo ornamentation went quite high, so you felt that the two could have easily swapped roles.

Jake Arditti, Alice Privett - Handel's Serse - Longborough Festival Opera - photo Robert Workman
Jake Arditti, Alice Privett - photo Robert Workman
Lucinda Grant Stuart sang Amastre with a lovely firm, even tone and a fine no-nonsense attitude, giving us some finely sung moments. Occasionally she seemed a little too collected, and I felt that the role could do with being shaken a little more. I am not sure that she ever looked like a man, but she was certainly very stylish.

Matthew Durkan played Elviro, one of the few genuinely comic roles which Handel wrote and Durkan clearly has a great gift for comedy. He was able to use his stature to brilliant comic effect, particularly s Abbi Temple, singing Atalanta, was so petite. Matthew Durkan made Elviro a charming oaf, and gave us some finely characterful singing along the way, as well as making a hilarious appearance in drag.

Jon Stainsby made a fine, upstanding Ariodate. He brought a lovely firm, focussed baritone to the role and sang with great vibrancy and fluency. Ariodate can sometimes seem a prosy bore, but Stainsby's singing ensured we paid attention. There were two hard-working chorus members Chiara Vinci and Laurence Panter, who sang in the short choruses and got involved in a great deal of the action.

Jeremy Silver directed the instrumental ensemble from the harpsichord. Placing the band on the stage meant that we could see and hear them well, which was a great pleasure. There were 14 in all and they made a crisp, well-nourished sound which made the overture a real pleasure to listen to.

There was much to enjoy in this lively production and if only Jenny Miller would understand that less can be more, then I would have had no complaints. In style it was far from the sort of Handel production I prefer, but both the staging and performances charmed me. It helped, of course, that Jenny Miller and Jeremy Silver had drawn such strongly vibrant, confident and stylish performances from the young singers. All concerned held the stage in their longer arias and gave many indications of promise to come.

Next year the young artists production from Longborough is Handel's Alcina and if they use a similar calibre cast then there will be much to enjoy, but I hope the production style calms down a little.

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