(Opera Settecento, St George’s Hanover Square, 31 March 2016)
Herewith another post from the depths of the drafts folder, which I hope still may be of some interest. I’m keen to post it because I’m a great fan of Opera Settecento’s habit of unearthing rare and unusual operas and this performance featured some of my favourite young singers. Many apologies for its lateness, but it all happened around the time of my uncle’s death and I wasn’t really up to blogging at the time. But I had a few scribbled thoughts and wanted to jostle them into some sense of order, so that I can have a record of this enjoyable and particularly complex pasticcio.
Pasticcio is the crucial word here. Although Elpidia was performed as part of the London Handel Festival, and officially goes under Handel’s name, he hardly wrote any of it. As in last year’s Catone in Utica, his role was that of compiler and impresario. Like Catone, Elpidia is effectively a musical jigsaw puzzle. The pieces which Handel fits together come from a number of other composers’ works, often operas which had recently been produced in Italy. He always kept a close eye on Italy, which had the potential to provide him not only with new and exciting singers for the London scene, but also the building blocks for new spectacles. A pasticcio was the go-to format for an impresario who needed to get a few productions out in a hurry. Since most Baroque operas have similar plots, character types and emotional arcs, Handel was able to find arias that perfectly fitted the story he wanted to tell. As far as I can tell, from the couple of arias I heard tonight which I’d also heard in their original contexts, he didn’t even bother changing the words.
The composer whose work Handel plundered most thoroughly for Elpidia is my beloved Leonardo Vinci (although, in the interests of fairness, arias were also ‘borrowed’ from Orlandini, Sarri, Lotti, Giacomelli and Capelli). Since I’ve only seen three of Vinci’s operas, I expected the music to be entirely new and, while there were snippets from Ifigenia, which I don’t know, Handel also drew extensively on Partenope, which I know a little better. It was odd, hearing the familiar melodies in a new setting, but funnily enough it worked.
Even by the standards of opera seria, Elpidia is complicated. Let’s set the scene first with some historical context. We’re in the 6th century, probably around 540 AD. The great Byzantine general Belisarius has been leading his army north through Italy, capturing cities from their Ostrogothic rulers as he goes. As the opera opens, he is beneath the walls of Ravenna, besieging the city’s king Vitiges. However, conquest is the last thing on the minds of two of his soldiers. Ormonte (Joe Bolger) and Olindo (Rupert Enticknap) are on the point of fighting a duel, to decide which of them gets the beautiful Elpidia, when they’re interrupted by their general. Belisarius (Christopher Jacklin) suggests, rather sensibly, that they should just ask Elpidia (Erica Eloff) which of them she would prefer. But Elpidia is made of stern stuff and reminds the men that they’re about to go into battle. She will give herself to the one who wins most glory. In private, though, her sentiments are less high-minded. She secretly loves Olindo and offers up a prayer to Diana for his preservation, in the form of the lovely aria Dea triforme, from Vinci’s Ifigenia. And it was typical Vinci (there was one musical motif that was very close to Vo solcando).
Things then get a bit confusing, because Elpidia is suddenly within the walls of Ravenna with the besieged Vitiges. It seems he has captured her and, inevitably, been smitten by her beauty. He prepares to flee to safety but, although he’s prepared to leave his daughter Rosmilda (Maria Ostroukhova) behind, he won’t be parted from Elpidia. A flurry of action follows, in which the Byzantines attack and capture Rosmilda as a prisoner, and it’s only afterwards, as Olindo and Ormonte boast of their deeds, that it transpires their beloved Elpidia has been taken hostage in turn. The warriors prepare to set off in pursuit, while poor Rosmilda begs to follow them, having fallen instantly in love with Ormonte. Ah, sudden and implausible coups d’amor: this is what opera is all about…
Having arrived just in time to rescue Elpidia from being cruelly ravished by the villainous Vitiges, the Byzantines are unable to capture Vitiges, but Olindo nobly offers to be taken prisoner in Elpidia’s place. But, after another abrupt change of scene, we find that in fact Vitiges is later captured by Ormonte, who has him secretly locked away in Ravenna’s dungeons, so that he can reveal his prize to Belisarius at an opportune moment. Olindo is also freed and, in recognition of the fact that he owes his liberty to Ormonte, cedes his claim to Elpidia. But of course, no one has asked Elpidia what she thinks (in the stage directions quoted from Handel’s charming translation of the libretto, ‘Upon Ormonte’s claiming Elpidia as his reward, she gives him to understand, that the Matter is yet to be referr’d to the Tribunal‘. I bet she does). But we’re not done yet. Belisarius suddenly finds out that Ormonte has been keeping Vitiges prisoner, but has not said anything about it, and begins to suspect his motives. Olindo, who has given up his claim to Elpidia, causes confusion and heartbreak when he doesn’t respond to her expressions of love. And let’s not forget that Rosmilda is still in love with Ormonte. How will everything be resolved?
Believe me, that confused me as much in summary as it did at the time, and I think that the librettist Apostolo Zeno has much to answer for. It can’t have been helped by Handel’s need to fit together a lot of disparate arias, and in fact the whole thing feels a lot more like a pasticcio than last year’s Catone did. It feels like a jumble of pieces which don’t really fit together into a logical narrative, but maybe that doesn’t matter. I’m increasingly aware that I’m a bit of an oddball in that I go to an opera for the story. Most people seem to go just for the music and on that front, at least, we were in fine hands.
The orchestra included a number of familiar names: Leo Duarte, conducting, who kept the music bowling along at a fine pace that left me surreptitiously bopping along in my seat during some of the brisker arias; Kinga Ujszászi on the violin; and Chad Kelly on harpsichord. As ever, Opera Settecento brought out all the colour and verve of the music (and, with so much Vinci, that’s a lot of verve). The cast, too, featured some very familiar faces, although with one new addition: Joe Bolger, a countertenor singing Ormonte. There is great potential in his voice, but he’s still young and has a little work to do on anchoring his notes and building up a strong foundation for his fluting higher register. Nevertheless, the moment he opened his mouth I was struck by the warm, melodic roundness of his tone and I look forward to hearing him develop further.
His rival in love, Olindo, was also his rival in register, being played by Rupert Enticknap. Enticknap already had a good voice when I heard him in Hercules and L’Oracolo in Messenia last year, but the experience of having played Farinelli in the West End transfer of Farinelli and the King seems to have given him much more confidence and experience. Now his singing is strong and well-controlled, and his hard-edged tone was a pleasant foil to Bolger’s softer, sweeter voice. The contrast was most noticeable when their voices came directly together in a duet at the end of Act 1, although here things could have been just a tad tighter. I imagined the voices should be weaving deftly in and out of one another; as it was, there were a couple of dropped stitches and the words were sometimes a bit lost in the music. However, there was an impressive final tumbling descent and, at the conclusion, their voices meshed perfectly.
Maria Ostroukhova, who impressed me so much in Adriano in Siria, continued to work wonders as Vitiges’s overlooked but lovelorn daughter Rosmilda. Her voice truly is wonderful: so powerful and golden, with a lovely shadowy undertone to it. I do hope she’ll do more here in London in the near future. And here was Christopher Jacklin again, too, whom I last saw as Cesare in Handel’s Catone and who conveyed Belisario’s nobility and warlike spirit with a rather limited amount of music. At the core of the opera, of course, is Elpidia herself, sung by the reliably splendid Erica Eloff with mingled pride, vulnerability and courage. I’ve already mentioned Dea triforme, which was probably her most delightful aria in terms of its Vincian flashiness, but I should also note one of Elpidia’s quieter moments: D’alme luci, also from Vinci’s Ifigenia. This wasn’t the kind of aria that made me sit up with ears pricked right away, but it developed into something melting and lovely, so delicate and precise at times that it sounded like dewdrops landing on a spider’s web. As you will know by now, Eloff can do no wrong for me. I have perhaps heard her perform with greater impact on other occasions – I’ll never forget her Bach Farnaspe – but she is always evocative, always strong and always captivating.
And here Eloff had good company in the acting stakes, as Elpidia’s nemesis Vitiges was played by Rupert Charlesworth, who impressed me in last year’s Semele and whom I last saw engaged in a singing contest with Valer Sabadus in Vienna. He didn’t have a huge amount of stage time in Poppea and I’m still haunted by the gentle sweetness of Semele‘s Where’er you walk, so was very happy to be able to hear him at greater length in Elpidia. He really does have a beautiful voice: firm yet gentle, expressive yet powerful, and wonderfully clear. Plus, his hair deserves its own fan club. His expressiveness also came through in his acting and he was one of the more effusive cast members. Naturally he and Eloff were a delight together as they faced each other down, she scowling in disdain, he charmingly urbane.
It was another fine piece of work in all respects from Opera Settecento. Long may they continue to unearth these gems and maybe one day, if we’re all very lucky, they might get round to recording some of them so that I don’t have to rely on my increasingly erratic memory and a few hand-scrawled notes to recapture the energy of their performances. Fortunately I can also rely on Dehggial’s blog to jog my memory of past productions, and do pop over to find out her thoughts on Elpidia (as usual, much more musically literate than mine).
And we don’t have long to wait to see Opera Settecento again. They have a very exciting production coming up just after the summer: some Hasse, at long last! He doesn’t get enough stage time in London and this Demetrio will be pretty special, because it boasts the most impressive line-up we’ve seen for a while. Eloff and Charlesworth will be returning, along with the equally vivacious Michael Taylor and, in a brilliant casting coup, Opera Settecento have secured Ray Chenez (of Marzia fame) to join them. I’m extremely excited and, of course, you’ll be able to read about all that here in due course.