Dark and Serious
ROBERT HUGILL was at
English Touring Opera's 'Tolomeo'
Tolomeo was the third of the five Handel operas which English Touring Opera are performing as part of their autumn tour (seen 17 October 2009 at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London UK). In his book on Handel's operas, Winton Dean is rather dismissive of Tolomeo, saying that it falls awkwardly between the dynastic and pastoral types of opera seria. The plot concerns the dynastic struggles of two brothers Tolomeo (Clint van der Linde) and Alessandro (James Laing). But both Tolomeo and his wife Seleuce (Katherine Manley) are in disguise on Cyprus as shepherds -- a standard convention in Italian opera from its very earliest days right through to Mozart (eg Il Re Pastore).
This circumstance seems not to have inspired Handel, who composed rather too many simile arias, whereby the heroines, Seleuce and Elisa (Rachel Nicholls) sing about breezes, flowers and birds. Elisa is the sister of Araspe (Neil Baker), who is ruler of Cyprus and the opera's notional villain, though Elisa runs him pretty close. Essentially Araspe and Elisa are selfishly in love with Seleuce and Tolomeo and prepared to go to any lengths to satisfy this love.
Clint van der Linde in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Tolomeo'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
For ETO, director James Conway solved the pastoral problem by judicious cutting and by making Tolomeo and Seleuce live as street people. Their 'pastoral' is no-longer a theatrical disguise, but a direct response to the stresses of their existence. Of course making this work would depend on the commitment of the singers and their ability to make the drama inherent in Handel's music work.
This production of Tolomeo was new in 2006 and has been revived by Conway with assistant director Bernadette Iglich. Designer Michael Vale seems to have revised his costumes somewhat.
The entire opera took place in a plain box with just a shabby pier, under which Tolomeo lived. Winton Dean described Tolomeo as a 'damp hero' saying that 'he begins and ends the opera by attempting suicide and does a fair amount of complaining in between, besides dozing off on stage'. But Conway and Van der Linde found something positive in this. From the very outset, Van der Linde used his large vibrant voice to great and arresting effect. You never felt he was whining, but sympathised with his struggles against the slings of fate. With quite a strong vibrato, Van der Linde's voice did not always negotiate Handel's passage-work with neatness. But he brought such power and vividness to the role that I wasn't worried. Especially notable was the way Van der Linde put the role's predominantly slow-ish minor key arias to good effect to create a very strong and intense character.
Clint van der Linde as Tolomeo and James Laing as his brother Alessandro in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Tolomeo'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
The opera opened with Tolomeo saving his brother Alessandro from drowning. James Laing rather got the short straw here as his role only gets three arias at most, the original castrato in Handel's company being rather weak. But Laing did get to sing the lovely Non lo diro col labbro (which later became well known as Silent Worship). Alessandro is a rather spineless, reactive figure. But the cast of his music suited the soft grain of Laing's voice. Laing sang so beautifully and musically that he made Alessandro a rather more positive character than might be supposed.
The two female roles were written for the fam'd rival queens, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, so the two parts are well balanced. Tolomeo's wife Seleuce (Katherine Manley) was required to spend most of the opera searching for Tolomeo and when they did meet she denied knowing him because of fear of what Araspe might do. This is purely a theatrical device to prevent the opera finishing too soon, but Manley's anxious, nervy demeanour made it believable. And her delivery of the music added to this, the emotions never felt grafted on. Her Seleuce was a frail, fragile nervous thing who had within her a core of determination to endure and find Tolomeo.
An especially remarkable thing about the opera is that Seleuce and Tolomeo get three duets. Their first starts out as a solo for Seleuce, then Tolomeo (who is in another distant location) echoes her and finally he takes over. Then at the end of Act 2, when they have been reunited but are imprisoned by Araspe, they have a long moving duet, with Manley and Van der Linde's voices blending beautifully. Finally, of course, they get a happy duet at the end.
Handel's novelty does not stop there. In Act 1, Tolomeo falls asleep during an aria. Then in Act 3 he takes what he believes is poison. First he has a remarkable accompagnato during which he rails against his tormentor and then a moving aria which he fails to finish, a fine example of Handel using our expectations on the structure of da capo arias to great effect.
Of course, Tolomeo hasn't taken poison, Elisa has substituted a sleeping draught. The contortions of the plot all arise out of Elisa and Araspe's selfish love for Tolomeo and Seleuce. Rachel Nicholls was a teasingly cruel party girl Elisa, who was used to getting her own way, casual in her cruelty rather than vicious. Nicholls has a big voice and used it in a highly vibrant manner. Her first aria was a bit smudged but after this it was remarkable how she was able to sing Handel's passagework so accurately and yet so vibrantly. Her big, vivid character could have easily outshone Manley's Seleuce. Except that Manley brought such quiet intensity to the role that she was entirely equal to the challenge.
Neil Baker as Araspe and Katherine Manley as Seleuce in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Tolomeo'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
The plot would not really have worked unless the villain of the piece, Araspe, was believable. And in the person of Neil Baker, he was. Baker brought a vivid swagger to each of the arias and entirely dominated the stage when he was present. Another curiosity of the piece is that no attempt is made to tidy up the fate of Araspe and Elisa, after Tolomeo and Seleuce's reunion they say not a word (apart from joining in the final coro).
The strongest character in the opera is one that does not appear: Cleopatra, Tolomeo and Alessandro's mother. It was a virtue of Conway's strong reading that Cleopatra was hardly missed.
This was an intense and serious show. The small cast (just five singers) were involving from the word go and the drama never needed any excuses. All singers were entirely responsive to Handel's power as a musical dramatist. One of James Conway's virtues as a director of Handel is that he rarely attempts to impose a directorial 'konzept' on the opera, but simply seeks to reveal what is within. The ETO programme book covered all five of the Handel operas they are doing and each opera is accompanied by an illuminating essay by Conway who explains the raison d'être behind the production; would that all opera directors did so.
The ETO performances were done in association with the Royal College of Music. Not only did the RCM provide singers as covers for all the roles (and so far I gather one singer has had to go on), but members of the RCM worked alongside the ETO orchestra and played at the performance. Under John Andrews' crisp musical direction, the period instrument orchestra gave a strong reading, admirably supporting the cast in their taxing emotional journey.
James Laing as Alessandro in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Tolomeo'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Conway and his cast gave Handel's serious opera an entirely dark and serious performance, with strong modern resonances. My only regret was that exigencies of economy and touring meant that the opera was heavily cut. I wanted to spend far longer with these vividly involving characters.
Copyright © 19 October 2009