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Simple but Effective

'Tolomeo' at the London Handel Festival,
enjoyed by ROBERT HUGILL


Handel's Tolomeo was the last opera he wrote for the Royal Academy. Written in 1728 it came after a long run of great operas but by the time it was written, the Royal Academy was running out of money. So Tolomeo has no great scenic requirement and requires a cast of just five singers, but what a cast; at the first performance the cast included three of the greatest opera singers in Europe, castrato Senesino (as Tolomeo), Francesca Cuzzioni (as his wife Seleuce) and Faustina Bordoni (as Elisa).

As the climax of this year's London Handel Festival they mounted a rare staged production of the opera in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music in cooperation with English Touring Opera, who will be taking the production on tour in the Autumn. The London Handel Festival provided their orchestra, playing brilliantly under conductor Laurence Cummings, the musical director of the Festival. The Royal College of Music provided the five talented singers and English Touring Opera provided director James Conway.

The plot, such as it is, involves the two sons of Cleopatra Queen of Egypt, Tolomeo (mezzo-soprano Patricia Orr) and Alessandro (counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie). Both have fled her malign influence and have been separately marooned on Cyprus. Also Tolomeo's wife Seleuce (soprano Katherine Manley) has also found her way to Cyprus. Both Tolomeo and Seleuce are disguised as beggars and each believes the other dead. Keeping the pot boiling is the King of Cyprus (baritone Kostas Smoriginas) and his sister Elisa (soprano Laura Michael).

Essentially this is one of those closed box plots beloved of Opera Seria, in which a group of characters are put through a series of tests to show their nobility and show how they behave. The engine of the plot in Tolomeo is a series of misunderstandings and disguises so that most characters are either in love with someone who is not in love with them or in love with someone who they believe is dead.

The title role gave the castrato Senesino the opportunity to play the sort of folorn lover that he did so well. The two women are rather less well differentiated than in some of Handel's other operas written for Cuzzoni and Bordoni. Though their music is effective, Handel relied a little too much on formulae such as simile arias.

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Copyright © 20 May 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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