(Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 17 February 2016)
So, by a remarkable stroke of luck, my business trip coincided with the Karlsruhe Handel Festival. By even more remarkable good fortune, Parnassus were staging their new production of Handel’s Arminio on the night I arrived and there was an excellent seat still free right in the centre of the eighth row of the stalls. As they say, it would’ve been rude not to.
I’d never come across Arminio before and, as the related CD recording hasn’t yet been released, had no way to familiarise myself with the music. Handel House’s website provided me with a synopsis, from which I learned that once again I was going to be witnessing a Baroquified version of ancient history (but I can’t blame Metastasio this time, because the libretto was written by Antonio Salvi). Arminio takes us back in time to 9 AD, when the Roman army under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were pushing ever deeper into Germania, in the hope of destroying the last vestiges of resistance. The essentials, as ever, are historically true: the young German noble Arminius resented Roman incursions, probably all the more because he’d spent his youth in Rome as a hostage, but the military education he’d had there proved very useful. Posing as an ally, he persuaded Varus to divide his forces in order to tackle an invented rebellion. Varus sent three legions into the heart of the Teutoburg Forest, none of whom were ever seen alive again. It was such a crushing defeat that the Romans permanently scaled back their ambitions in the region. Presumably the patriotic German subject appealed to Handel, and would be likely to please the Hanoverian elite in London, but as ever the operatic story bore precious little relationship to reality.
Arminio (sung by Max Cencic) is prince of the Cherusci and, as the story opens, he receives news that the Romans have just won a great victory over his allies and are heading his way. Persuaded by his wife Tusnelda (Layla Claire) to fight another day, he flees in disguise with his family, only to be captured. When brought before the Roman general Varo (Juan Sancho), Arminio refuses to capitulate despite the example of his father-in-law Segeste (Pavel Kudinov), who has gone over to the Roman side and is now a trusted adviser to Varo. With the dashing prince thrown into prison, Varo and his sidekick Tullio (Owen Willetts) sack his castle and plan for his execution. Arminio himself, certain that he will die, tries to protect his family by asking Varo to take care of his wife after his death – a request that delights Varo and horrifies Tusnelda. Meanwhile, in Segeste’s castle, his dandyish son Sigismondo (Vince Yi) fritters away his days mooning over Arminio’s feisty sister Rumise (Ruxandra Donose), only to be plunged into despair when his father announces that it’s not possible for him to marry the sister of a traitor. What is to become of Sigismondo’s heart? Will Arminio escape from the scaffold? And will the lustful Varo have his wicked way with the virtuous Tusnelda?
I felt a bit of trepidation, and not just because I didn’t know the story. Last time I saw a staged Parnassus show it was Catone in Utica at Versailles and for all the fine singing, I wasn’t alone in feeling that the production itself was woefully lacking. What to expect this time? But it turned out that I was in for a real treat: sumptuous 18th-century costumes (with a 19th-century Napoleonic twist for the Romans), a set of concentric rotating stages which was both simple and effective and, most important of all, excellent acting. One of the big problems with Catone was the way that people just stood around on the stage, but Arminio was narrated as much by the acting and reactions of its cast as by the singing itself. The costumes and set are down to Helmut Stürmer, but Cencic himself directed it and you’ve got to give it to the man: he can tell a story. From the opening scene, with the family’s banquet interrupted by the arrival of a mortally wounded messenger, to the poignant prison in which Arminio bids farewell to Tusnelda, the whole thing felt tightly-plotted and driven by its own narrative momentum. I thought it was especially brilliant to have Arminio’s and Tusnelda’s children on stage: it heightened the emotional impact and allowed you to imagine what was truly at stake.
When I get to hear the CD I might change my mind, but at the moment I don’t feel that Arminio‘s one of Handel’s best. It also takes a while to get going, though things began to perk up in Act 2 when Cencic was finally unleashed on Sì, cadrò, ma sorgerà, swiftly followed by Claire singing Tusnelda’s Al furor che ti consiglia. I was extremely impressed by her, actually: for me she was the discovery of the night. I’ve never come across her before but she has a bright, warm soprano and she can handle both defiance and emotion with ease; her acting was especially graceful, given the large panniers she had to deal with. If Claire was the noble, elegant lady then as seconda donna Donose got to have a lot more fun, playing the role of Rumise very much for laughs. She’s a gifted comic actress but, because I was focusing on the slapstick, I didn’t get such a clear idea of her voice; I liked what I heard, however, and I’ll look forward to listening a bit more closely on the CD.
Juan Sancho played the villain with aplomb, as ever, although at least this time he didn’t have to play the tyrannical father. Dressed in head-to-toe leather, his Varo was handsome, quietly dangerous and, as it turned out, a complete bastard. Sancho was projecting his voice better than he did at Versailles, and perhaps it’s because of this that I thought his Spanish accent seemed particularly strong. The role of nasty father was taken on by Pavel Kudinov, who was at his funniest when playing straight man to Vince Yi’s foppish Sigismondo. You could just see it in Segeste’s face: ‘What have I done to deserve a son like this?!’ Unfortunately, due to trains, I had to miss the final scene and left just after Segeste had tied Sigismondo to a chair and was threatening to emasculate him with a pair of large pliers – a threat to which Yi responded by soaring up into an even higher register than usual.
With three countertenors in the cast, it was always going to be interesting to see how they compared. I hadn’t heard Owen Willetts before and thought he started off a little shakily, but he’d warmed up by Act 2 and has a nice, melodious voice of a similar type to Cencic’s. Again I’ll need to listen to him a little more closely on the CD. Yi probably stole the crown for flamboyant singing: he’s very good at clipped machine-gun coloratura and I’m always amazed at high his voice sits, but I think sometimes he falls into the trap of pushing for notes that are slightly too high even for him. I’m also still troubled by the slightly metallic edge to his voice, for all its dazzle. Like Donose, he was a superb comic actor and nobly sported an enormous and very silly wig throughout, fluttering a feathered fan and generally pushing camp to the extreme.
Cencic, however, stole the day. He was on extremely good form and, when he’s singing at his best, there are few if any who can match his control and range. I’ve already mentioned his Sì, cadrò, with its insane coloratura, and we had more swagger from him in Act 3 with Fatto scorta al sentier della Gloria, but he was at his most meltingly sublime in the gentler arias and his Vado a morir in the prison nearly brought tears to the eyes. It wasn’t just his singing though. When I’ve seen Cencic in staged things before, he’s either been rather effete (Arbace in Catone; the eponymous Alessandro) or actually playing a woman (Mandane; Sant’ Alessio‘s Sposa). This was the first time I’d seen him go for proud, rugged manliness and he did a damn fine job of it, suppressing all his habitual hand-gestures. When he came on in Act 3 with a shirt open to the navel, and started brandishing a sword, I confess to being surprised… in a good way. Seriously, it was a very good performance.
I don’t know enough to say much about the orchestra, save that in Act 1 they occasionally sounded a bit ragged and it took a while for them to tighten up. I should emphasise that this wasn’t down to the harpsichordist, an admirable young local musician who’d stepped in at the last minute after Armonia Atenea’s own harpsichordist had suffered some kind of nasty accident (my German wasn’t good enough to understand the details, but it provoked groans of sympathy from the audience). Nor, unfortunately, can I comment on the final chorus because the performance was slightly running over and I couldn’t risk missing my train, but I very much hope that there might be either a broadcast or a DVD in due course. Filming was taking place on the night I was there and, for added flavour, you can watch a 3-minute trailer on YouTube which suggests there might be more footage waiting to be edited somewhere. Let’s hope. It’s definitely a production I’d like to see again, not so much for the music, I confess, but for the lovely costumes and sets. It really was a fine example of how to stage something in a traditional way without it feeling staid.
All in all, a great night out despite the three-hour round trip on the train. I must see if I can wrangle some more business trips to Frankfurt at this time of year…
Watermarked photos from here, due to lack of other production images