Sunday 17 September 2023

Polite pastoral: Handel's Tolomeo from Baroque Encounter

Handel: Tolomeo; Carmen Lasok, Glenn Kesby, Lucy Thomas, John  Lofthouse, director: Christopher Tudor, conductor: Asako Ogawa; Baroque Encounter at St John's Smith Square
Handel: Tolomeo; Carmen Lasok, Glenn Kesby, Lucy Thomas, John  Lofthouse, director: Christopher Tudor, conductor: Asako Ogawa; Baroque Encounter at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 16 September 2023

A production given in period style that never quite managed to break out of the decorative pastoral entertainment and demonstrate the underlying drama of Handel's opera

Premiered in 1728, Handel's Tolomeo was the last opera he would write for the great triumvirate of singers, castrato Senesino and sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. Handel would revive it in the 1730s, but its modern performance history is rather sparse. English Touring Opera did it in 2006 (revived 2009, see my review) and its best claim to fame, rather bizarrely, is that composer Arthur Somervell adapted on of the arias from the opera as the song Silent Worship.

The opera made a welcome return to the London stage when Baroque Encounter performed it at St John's Smith Square on Saturday 16 September 2023. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Tudor and conducted from the harpsichord by Asako Ogawa, the production featured an admirably experienced cast, albeit not particularly well-known, with Glenn Kesby as Tolomeo, Carmen Lasok as Seleuce, Lucy Thomas as Elisa, John Lofthouse as Araspe and Alexander Hutton as Alessandro.

Tolomeo is a rather strange work, combining elements of the pastoral and dynastic types of opera seria - the hero and heroine - Tolomeo (Glenn Kesby) and his wife Seleuce (Carmen Lasok) - are both in disguise (separately) as shepherds on Cyprus. What little plot concerns their attempts to find each other with the librettist (Nicola Haym, based on the libretto from Carlo Sigismondo Capece's Tolomeo et Alessandro) inserting various devices to delay the inevitable conclusion. But there is dynastic struggle too, Tolomeo has been banished by his scheming mother, Cleopatra, who has usurped his throne and also on the island is Tolomeo's brother Alessandro (Alexander Hutton), whilst the King of Cyprus, Araspe (John Lofthouse) and his sister Elisa (Lucy Thomas) have designs on Tolomeo and Seleuce themselves. It can work, John Conway's production at ETO (where Tolomeo and Seleuce were street people) showed that, but it requires a sure hand to bring out the drama. The compressed nature of the libretto means that any subtleties in the original are lost.

This was quite a chamber performance, Asako Ogawa directed an ensemble of five strings, two oboes (doubling recorders) and theorbo plus two horns, and the singers all had quite light, lyric voices. The overall approach was attractively decorative. Period-style costumes were used, which brought an element of distancing to the drama but rendered it visually pleasing, and Christopher Tudor's direction used 18th-century dramatic techniques, albeit mingled in with more modern gestures. 

In Cambridge Handel Opera's 2022 production of Handel's Tamerlano, director Dionysios Kyropoulos used historical stagecraft to striking effect (with modern costumes), showing the modern singers can make this style of performance dramatically involving [see my review]. In Tolomeo the effect was rather more studied and choreographed, the gestures felt like another layer added rather than being an essential part of the drama, all adding to the rather decorative feel of the production.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the opera was premiered by three of the greatest singing actors in Western Europe.  The idea behind such dramas was that the principals, here Tolomeo and Seleuce, are placed in a series of intense dramatic situations which enable the singers to show the characters' worth, their moral fibre. The castrato Senesino liked being able to demonstrate the 'pathetic' (in 18th-century usage) and there is plenty of that here, he can come over as wet and horribly passive, whilst Seleuce can seem similarly reactive. But with the right sort of dramatic performance, you enter another world. Unfortunately, at St John's Smith Square, you sensed an element of distance from the underlying drama and the unlikely coincidences in the plot, rather than being used creatively, were presented in such a way that the audience laughed.

The element of pastoral disguise came over well, and both Glenn Kelsby (Tolomeo) and Carmen Lasok (Seleuce) gave attractive, lyrical performances. But the atmosphere of pastoral serenata was paramount and you never really felt that either character was at the end of their tether. The King of Cyprus and his sister, John Lofthouse and Lucy Thomas, are the engines of the plot, both scheming, both selfish and pursuing their own ends. Lucy Thomas created an attractive persona for Elisa but never quite managed to break out of the polite pastoral vein that the production favoured, whilst John Lofthouse's bluster as Araspe, whilst well meant, often came over as comic rather than threatening. Alexander Hutton impressed as Alessandro, but unfortunately this role is tiny.

There were two extra performers, dancers Argutzane Arrien and Louisa McAlpine. They really lifted things when they performed, but there is not much dance in Tolomeo and you wished that the company had chosen a different vehicle.

The work was sung in Carmen Lasok's serviceable English translation, but the singers had trouble getting the words across in the St John's acoustic. Also, the translation did not make much attempt to minimise the dramatic inconsistencies so that a few lines got a laugh at moments that were supposed to be heightened drama.

The instrumental ensemble was to one side of the stage, and there were times when singers, notably Carmen Lasok, and instrumentalists came slightly adrift in the tuning. The instrumental performance was crisply admirable with plenty to enjoy, but a tendency to insert a gap after each aria before the recitative started again rather slowed the pace down.

Musically there was plenty to enjoy here, but unfortunately the evening never quite added up to the sort of dramatic opera seria performances that we have come to enjoy with many modern productions.

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