(Oper Halle, with Händelfestspielorchester Halle and Enrico Onofri, 5 June 2015)
Tickets had all sold out and we’d accepted that we weren’t going to get to see this staged revival of Handel’s rarely-performed 1713 opera (there’s only one extant recording, from 2000, with James Bowman as Silla). And then, during the interval of Jaroussky’s concert, I got chatting to some fellow English travellers, who just happened to have two tickets going spare for the following night and very generously offered them at a discount. And so, slightly dazzled, we found ourselves at the premiere in absolutely splendid seats in the centre of the stalls.
Since we thought we hadn’t a chance of seeing Silla, we hadn’t done our homework and came armed only with a moderate grasp of operatic Italian (for the singing), bad schoolgirl German (for the surtitles) and five minutes’ study of the Wikipedia synopsis on my iPhone. However, the staging was so clear, vivid and smart that we had no trouble following the story… though I was a little sad that I didn’t quite get the classical helmets suggested by the posters. But never mind.
The scene is Rome: the place the 1930s. The military dictator Lucio Cornelio Silla has returned from war victorious over his enemy, the revolutionary leader Marius. Silla should be a hero, but the Senate have been alarmed by his erratic behaviour. Amid fears for his mental health and concerns about incipient megalomania, he has been placed under house arrest, accompanied by his closest circle of intimates. Confined to his luxurious villa, Silla wallows in films of his past victories and degenerates deeper and deeper into paranoia. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of their confinement, he begins to suspect everyone around him and his grasp on sanity becomes ever more fragile.
No one is safe: not his doughty wife Metella, who in the time-honoured tradition of politicians’ wives is loyal to her husband despite his shameless peccadilloes; nor his faithful doctor Lepido, who is always close at hand with an injection or a tonic to soothe or boost the weary dictator’s spirits. The other members of the party are Lepido’s febrile, neurotic wife Flavia, whom Silla desires; Metella’s dandyish nephew Claudio, who has previously spoken out openly against Silla’s policies; and Silla’s kittenish ward (and perhaps mistress) Celia, who has turned up in spite of Metella’s wounded pride, and who all too quickly catches the suave Claudio’s eye. Perhaps the only one Silla does trust is his towering, mostly silent henchman, the wonderfully named Scabro. As their imprisonment lengthens and the skies over Rome darken with the droning of enemy aircraft, the villa becomes a place of psychological torment: a place in which life, virtue and death teeter on the brink, slaves to one man’s tenuous grip on reality.
The singing was generally strong but something that was very noticeable was that the entire cast were extremely gifted actors as well. The highlight for me was Filippo Mineccia, the Florentine countertenor who took the lead role. I have Mineccia’s 2012 album of Vinci arias and have never been particularly fond of it, but his voice has really developed in the last three years. He now has much greater security across his range and, although he didn’t make as much of it as he could have done, he’s one of the few countertenors who can belt out a note that fills an opera house, not because it’s piercing and high, but simply because it’s big. This was shown to great effect in his first aria Alza il volo la mia fama, where he suddenly threw out a ringing ‘festiggiar‘ that raised all the hairs along the backs of my arms. And his acting was brilliant. Shaven-headed, sleazy and pugnacious, he came across as just the kind of arrogant bastard you love to hate. I imagine this opera could tank quite badly if you don’t have someone of sufficient charisma in the lead role, because Silla is an absolute swine but he’s the one who holds everything together, so you need someone who carries the audience along with them. Mineccia definitely did that.
On the basis of the music and plot, I wouldn’t say Silla is one of Handel’s strongest operas. Although this clever staging did a lot to rationalise it, there are still moments where it feels like Baroque-opera-by-numbers. There are the usual two pairs of lovers, whose happiness is being threatened by the lascivious designs of a tyrant. People are thrown into prisons and threatened with imminent execution; there is a storm and shipwreck (here adjusted); and there’s even a final deus ex machina. That’s also blessedly cut out here: such endings always smack of the librettist getting himself into such a tangle that he has to drag in some god of his choice to sort things out.
The music itself is perfectly good but there weren’t many arias that really gripped me and those I do remember, I recall for their staging. The overture, for example, was played against a projection of a black-and-white film showing 1930s newsreel footage of soldiers at war, with occasional clips of Silla’s head as he reviewed troops or postured in Mussolini fashion, and text giving news about his house arrest. The shipwreck, from which Silla is meant to be rescued by the loyal Metella becomes something quite different: an attempted drowning in a bathtub, while the frantic Metella is held back. And the final chorus praising the restoration of peace has a distinctly sinister undertone: in the garden of his country estate, Silla assembles his inner circle and, as the chorus comes to a close, quietly picks them off one by one. As the curtain falls, he has turned on Metella: the tyranny of this troubled mind can never be undone.
As the long-suffering Metella, Romelia Lichtenstein had a lovely textured mezzo, although sometimes I found myself wishing she’d put a little more power behind it. As it was, she came across as rather understated, although she turned in a very compelling performance of Metella’s Io non ti chiedo piu. Isolated on the stage, staring up at slow-motion film of herself and her husband in more successful times, this Metella managed to convince you that she still loved her errant spouse. Goodness knows why; but we believed her. The aria seemed to go on for a while, but I thought afterwards that this is probably necessary, because after watching Silla behaving so reprehensibly, we need to see the full depth of Metella’s patience and understanding. Flavia (Ines Lex) also made an impression, with a bright and very agile soprano which fitted the interpretation of the character as emotionally frail, reliant on the steadying pills with which her husband supplies her, and gradually disintegrating in the face of Silla’s predatory interest.
Lepido was sung by Jeffrey Kim, a countertenor I hadn’t come across before, whose high-set voice sounded a little brittle when he started out. However I think perhaps his voice just wasn’t quite warm enough because he sounded stronger later on, when he had a rather lovely duet with Lex. Finally there was Claudio, the baggy-trousered young swaggerer, played here with great relish as a trouser role by Antigone Papoulkas, who has set his eyes on the alluring Celia (Eva Bauchmüller). Papoulkas seemed to be having a great time, relishing her role just as much as Mineccia was, and she had some of the most memorable pieces simply because the whole performance was so fun to watch.
Claudio’s attempt to seduce Celia, Senti bell’ idol mio was performed as Claudio ‘accompanied’ himself on the harpsichord, which turned into a duet with Celia; and in Con tromba guerrier, in which Claudio and Silla square off against one another, dictator and dandy take one another’s measure at the snooker table. I couldn’t help thinking that it must be hard enough to sing and act at once, let alone having to play snooker too; but they both made a very good fist of it, and the comic potential was played to its max without becoming tedious.
All in all I found it a shrewd reading of the opera. The huge circular set was lovingly crafted with panelling, lamps and doors and it was used to great effect to add to the sense of disorientation and psychological confusion. There were points when, as the tension ramped up, characters chased one another through the rotating series of rooms, guns in hands, never knowing what was through the next door or round the next corner. It was very well handled. The frequent references to the ominous ‘cieli‘ or heavens were rationalised by the occasional appearance of a bomber’s shadow as it flew low over the villa: in wartime, the gods’ disfavour can all too easily be replaced by human menace.
It’s an example of how creative, sensitive staging and strong acting can lift an opera that in itself is fairly mediocre. All in all, it was a fun evening and the cast should be congratulated for turning in a performance of such panache. To get an idea of the ‘look’ of the thing, you can see a trailer here.