Monday 24 April 2023

Compelling thriller: Handel's Arminio from Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists

Handel: Arminio - Gabriela Kupšytė, Sarah Dufresne, Michael Gibson, Josef Jeongmeen Ahn, Kamohelo Tsotetsi - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Marc Brenner)

Handel: Arminio; Gabriela Kupšytė, Sarah Dufresne, Isabelle Peters, Kamilla Dunstan, Josef Jeongmeen Ahn, Michael Gibson, Kamohelo Tsotetsi, director: Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol, conductor André Callegaro, orchestra of the Early Opera Company, Royal Opera Jette Parker Artists; Linbury Theatre

Handel's late, problem opera recast as a compelling contemporary political thriller with fine performances from a balanced cast

Handel's Arminio is famously regarded as one of his more problematic operas. Premiered at Covent Garden in 1737 as part of a season that included three new operas, eight operas in all plus four oratorios. The season failed, Handel fell ill and Arminio was never revived and he would write only four more Italian operas. The problems stem from the adaptation of the original libretto (written in 1703 for Alessandro Scarlatti), of the 1300 lines of recitative in Scarlatti, Handel wrote just 300. This leaves us with a plot that is positively telegraphic and characters whose motivations are not fully explored.

Director Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol made a virtue of these limitations in her production of Handel's Arminio for the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Artists at the Linbury Theatre. We caught the performance on Saturday 22 April 2023, André  Callegaro conducted the orchestra of the Early Opera Company with Gabriela Kupšytė as Arminio, Sarah Dufresne as Tusnelda, Josef Jeongmeen Ahn as Segeste, Michael Gibson as Varo, Isabelle Peters as Sigismondo, Kamilla Dunstan as Ramise, and Kamohelo Tsotetsi as Tullio.

Handel: Arminio - Isabelle Peters, Kamilla Dunstan - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Marc Brenner
Handel: Arminio - Isabelle Peters, Kamilla Dunstan - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Marc Brenner)

The opera features the German chieftain, Arminio (Gabriela Kupšytė), fighting the Roman invaders led by General Varo (Michael Gibson) and his adviser, Tullio (Kamohelo Tsotetsi). Arminio and his wife, Tusnelda (Sarah Dufresne), are staunchly anti-Roman and the opera opens with them planning to flee. Tusnelda's father Segeste (Josef Jeongmeen Ahn), however, is a collaborator, which leaves his son Sigismondo (Isabelle Peters) conflicted, especially as Sigismondo is in love with Arminio's sister, Ramise (Kamilla Dunstan).

Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol turned this into a pacey contemporary political thriller, keeping everything moving and sustaining the tension across the three acts. It helped that designer Noemi Daboczi's imaginative set enabled the short scenes to flow without interruption. Basically, stage left was a bedroom initially occupied by Arminio and Tusnelda, then used as a holding place for the various German royal prisoners, whilst stage right was the Romans' office. Each was surrounded by curtains that opened and closed (rather hospital bed-like but effective). This not only meant that scenes flowed into each other, but at times they overlapped, and unlike some productions where this device can be distracting, here the extra dumb-show provided some of the background and depth that the opera is lacking. Winton Dean complained about the transitions in the opera being awkward or non-existent. Here Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol used the conventions of TV drama and political thriller to make the piece work.

It helped that she had a very fine cast with not a weak link.

The plot gives Arminio no heroics, the battles all take place off-stage, instead, he is noble and dignified, determined to die for his cause. Gabriela Kupšytė made a virtue of this, making Arminio quite a gentle, but determined character. Her singing was quite soft-grained but secure and centred. She captured the character well, particularly in the more sober, internal arias such as the finely sung one where Arminio contemplates death, and the moving farewell to his wife. Sarah Dufresne as Arminio's wife, Tusnelda, brought a welcome bravura element to her role of the steadfast wife, yet in her final aria, where Tusnelda contemplates suicide, Dufresne really touched the heart too. Dufresne really lit up the stage with her singing and seemed to have the style and the drama perfectly, and I would love to see her in one of Handel's showier soprano roles.

Handel: Arminio - Sarah Dufresne, Gabriela Kupšytė - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Marc Brenner)

Sigismondo spends the opera havering between his father (supporting the Romans) and Arminio (supporting his country). Isabelle Peters, looking almost unrecognisable in a curly wig, glasses and puffa jacket, brought out the character's youth, making Sigismondo's dilemma stem from his youth rather than terminal indecision. Peters brought this out perfectly, making her aria closing Act One a particularly notable moment. But throughout the opera she made us sympathise with the young man. As his beloved, Ramise, Kamilla Dunstan was feisty indeed. This Ramise was a passionate freedom-fighter who saw things in more black and white so her constant pressure on Peters' Sigismondo made sense. It helped that Dunstan brought a rich, characterful mezzo-soprano voice to bear on the role.

Josef Jeongmeen Ahn impressed immensely as Segeste, the turncoat German who is supporting the Romans. Segeste is one of Handel's more complex baritone parts and Ahn brought the character to life, as well as giving us some fine Handel singing. Varo was written for the tenor John Beard who would go on to create some major roles in Handel's oratorios. But in 1737 he was probably only 21 and Varo is a relatively limited, slightly stiff role. Varo is in love with Tusnelda, and this gave tenor Michael Gibson just enough to work with to soften the edges of this rather formal man. Kamohelo Tsotetsi impressed as Varo's adviser Tullio, though Handel actually wrote the role for a mezzo-soprano.

In the pit, Andre Callegaro, directing from the harpsichord, and the orchestra of the Early Opera Company, playing at modern pitch, gave us a pacey account of the score. It is not Handel's most elaborate, just two oboes and a bassoon in addition to the strings, but there were plenty of good things. Some fine oboe playing (with the players doubling on recorder) from Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphys, and a lovely violin solo from leader Catherine Martin. None of the music approaches the hit numbers from Handel's more famous operas, but it is never less than interesting.

Arminio was a perhaps surprising choice for the Jette Parker Artists, but this production showed that the opera works on stage if you apply a little imagination and have sympathetic performers. None are what might be thought of as Baroque specialists, but all produced stylish performances in what became rather compelling drama.

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