(Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, 26 March 2015)
The final event of this year’s London Handel Festival for me was this staged version of the pasticcio opera Giove in Argo. Although Catone in Utica was also a pasticcio, the two differ because Giove is made up of arias and choruses from Handel’s own earlier operas rather than those of other composers. (However, as I’m still very much a Handel beginner, most of them felt new anyway!) It dates from 1739, the year after Xerxes, and represents one of Handel’s very last forays into Italian-language productions in London.
Despite its comparatively late date, Giove nevertheless has a very early Baroque flavour to its plot, with a pastoral setting full of nymphs, shepherds and romantic confusion. After attempting to get my head around the synopsis, I decided the best way to look at it was as a Baroque version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Jupiter and Diana in similar roles to those of Oberon and Titania as they dabble in the romantic fates of mortals.
Iside, princess of Argos, has come to the forests of Arcadia on the trail of her father’s murderer, the evil tyrant Licaone. Hell-bent on vengeance, she asks for help from the shepherd Arete, who has become her rather persistent admirer. Arete gladly offers his assistance in return for one small favour: her love. It’s a tempting offer. There’s just one problem: Iside is already betrothed to Osiris, king of Egypt. But Arete can help her exact her revenge, and Osiris is far away, so… She begins to waver. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a young man calling himself Erasto is trying to find out what has become of Iside. He too encounters Arete, who takes an instant dislike to him: for Arete knows that this is no mere shepherd, but the disguised Osiris, come in pursuit of his errant fiancée.
In yet another part of the woods is Calisto, daughter of Licaone, who has come searching for her father but who finds instead a world of possibilities that she had never imagined. Encountering the nymphs and hunters of Diana’s entourage, Calisto falls under the spell of the formidable goddess and pledges herself to join Diana’s followers. As the goddess inducts her into the rules of her service – which fundamentally boils down to ‘no men’ – Calisto finds her vows immediately put to the test, when she unexpectedly runs into the handsome and very persuasive Arete.
Flitting in and out of the scene, a lurking dark presence, is Licaone himself, fuming at the coup which has toppled him from his throne and eagerly awaiting his chance to get revenge. As these four mortals – Iside, Osiris, Calisto and Licaone – stumble towards one another and their destinies, the gods watch, and pull their strings. For Arete is far more than he seems. He’s no mere shepherd, but the god Jupiter in disguise, come down to amuse himself in Arcadia. And so, when he falls for both Iside and Callisto, nothing – not the king of Egypt and not his jealous daughter Diana – can be allowed to stand in the way. But Jupiter has counted without one tiny problem. What if the women he’s pursuing refuse to be caught?
My overall memory of the production will be the creative and austere stage design by Molly Einchcomb, which conjured up the sense of a dream-landscape which could all too easily tip over into nightmare. Arcadia’s forests are suggested by a group of poles studded with foot- and hand-holds, among which the characters weave their way. It was visually immensely effective: the starkly skeletal ‘trees’ often silhouetted against a block-coloured backdrop, and the colour palette largely restricted to black, white and red. There was a definite Japanese flavour to the production, especially as regards Diana. Her followers ritually dress her in a kimono-style robe and crown her with a headdress of arching gazelle horns, almost like a samurai helm. In the first act, wooing Calisto into her cult, she serves up tea with formal elegance; later, merciless and cold, she draws a samurai sword on her. Her chorus of followers wear black hats and tops with bright red harem pants, armed with poles which double up as hunting spears and ritual instruments. This Arcadia is a fantasy otherworld, a place where anything can happen.
There were two alternating casts for the opera, each one made up of students from the Royal College of Music, and from what I’ve read it seems that each cast has some particularly strong singers in it. Three in particular stood out for me on this night. The one who caught my attention right from the beginning was Kezia Bienek’s commanding Iside. Her voice, a luxurious mezzo-soprano, already seems to have the power and control of a seasoned professional; but her acting was also compelling to watch. Hair slicked back, formidable, swaggering and short-tempered, this was an Iside to cast fear into the hearts of men. Opposite her, as the meeker, milder Calisto, Galina Averina initially didn’t have quite as many chances to show us what she could do; but she blossomed in the second and third acts, where she proved to have a superb command of coloratura. This was shown off to simply stunning effect in her aria Combattuta da più venti, where Calisto, inwardly torn between Arete’s charms and Diana’s commands, was ensnared in a web of ropes, physically constrained even as her voice spiralled through the tumult of her notes.
The men were slightly overshadowed in vocal terms, but I have to mention the wonderful physical performance of Gyula Rab as Jupiter / Arete. Lithe, feline and predatory, he slunk across the stage, or flowed up to perch halfway up one of the poles, savouring the chaos he had caused. It’s rather amusing that two of my standout performers in this festival have both been Jupiters*, though Rab’s dangerously seductive god sometimes felt more like Dionysus in the Bacchae than Jupiter.
It was wonderful to see a fully-staged opera as part of the festival and it was also great to have a glimpse of the next generation of singers of whom we’ll be hearing a great deal more in a few years, I have no doubt. Dramatic, evocative and with some very strong performances, Giove was a real treat and I’m already looking forward to what the Britten Theatre comes up with for next year.
* The other, of course, was Rupert Charlesworth in Semele.