(Royal Opera House at Wilton’s Music Hall, 9 November 2016)
This was my third Handel pasticcio, after Elpidia and Catone in Utica, but it differed from both of these in that Oreste is made up purely of Handel’s own earlier work. It hung together much more successfully as a result, with melodies that tickled my memory but nothing that shouted its origins elsewhere. It’s the fourth of the Royal Opera House’s Baroque productions that I’ve seen in other venues and, after the immensity of the Roundhouse’s Orfeo and the intimacy of the Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse’s Ormindo and Orpheus, Wilton’s Music Hall offered an appropriately faded setting for this tale of love and madness at the end of the world.
The director, Gerard Jones, has set Oreste in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, a ‘post-social’ world according to the programme, where society has broken down and only the strong and ruthless can survive. On this wretched island, Toante (Simon Shibambu) has made himself dictator, ruling over the terrified people with the help of his lurching henchman Filotete (Gyula Nagy) and the priestess Ifigenia (Jennifer Davis). Ifigenia is the daughter of the Greek king Agamemnon who, as you probably know, tried to sacrifice her to the gods to hasten a favourable wind to carry his fleet to Troy. But Ifigenia was saved by Diana, and whisked away here to a nightmarish existence, half-priestess and half-prisoner. As Diana’s votary, she is forced by Toante to sacrifice any stranger who arrives on the island, partly as a way to placate the gods with blood, but also as a convenient way to ensure that Toante’s tyranny goes unchallenged.
Into this savage, crumbling world comes Oreste (Angela Simkin), the son of Agamemnon, who has been driven mad by the Furies as punishment for slaughtering his regicide mother and her lover (keep up at the back there! If in doubt, read this). In Jones’s production, Oreste is a twitching, traumatised man-child, who spends his time peering beyond the things of this world and holding silent conversations, fingers flickering, with the phantoms of his mind. Ifigenia finds him and, because she has sympathy with broken things, decides to hide this quivering stranger with whom she feels so sharp a connection. (She doesn’t know he’s her brother, because she last saw him as an infant. And yet she yearns to be reunited with her lost sibling and cherishes the few reminders she has of him: his baby clothes; his teddy bear.) Now, Oreste may be mad but he still represents something, and the powers back in Argos are desperate to find him. His wife Ermione (Vlada Borovko) and his best friend Pilade (Thomas Atkins) are hot on his trail, but their arrival on the island is less fortunate, for they are discovered by Filotete who, grinning, puts them under arrest.
The text itself is very conventional from this point onward, and I’m getting into spoiler territory, so skip this if you wish. Oreste and Ermione meet in chains and bewail their misfortunes in a duet. Toante has fallen in love with Ermione, whom he attempts unsuccessfully to ravish in exchange for her freedom and that of her idiot husband, to be greeted by a wave of royal scorn. Discovering that Toante is offering a reward for whoever turns in Oreste, whom an oracle has identified as his mortal enemy, Pilade attempts to pass himself off as his friend in an act of great friendship. Oreste resists and there’s a confusing moment where everyone is claiming to be Oreste (‘I am Spartacus!’ I wrote in my notes). Ifigenia is growing increasingly disturbed by her sense of connection with this foreign madman and has persuaded Filotete, who loves her, to help protect him. Toante, understandably, loses patience and orders his minions to kill everybody, at which point Ifigenia and Filotete finally dare to stand up to him and the tyrant is slain, after which there are joyful choruses. Oreste and Ermione are reunited, Ifigenia and Filotete find happiness with one another, and Pilade must presumably find contentment in a job well done and a manly slap on the back from his chum.
Except, no. Jones is telling the story of some desperately damaged people and a lieto fine just isn’t on the cards. This is a place where taboos and social constraints have broken down, and House Atreides (the branch from Mycenae not Dune) has never been known for its normality. In this gruesome production, we watch sacrificial victims being hammered to death in a plastic-sheeted room, their bodies dismembered and dragged off in bin bags; a distant furnace emits periodic, sickening puffs of smoke from its chimney. We see Ermione descend into this wasteland like a Park-Avenue princess gingerly putting her perfectly-manicured toe into a gangland war. Filotete, brutalised by his vicious master, woos Ifigenia with the intensity of a dangerous obsession. And what of the prince and princess themselves?
Ifigenia is a girl whose own father was on the point of murdering her to gain divine favour; she’s been swept away from one living death to another, forced to kill in order to preserve herself in a terrifyingly precarious world. Oreste has seen his mother murder his father, has slaughtered her and her lover in retribution, and has broken away from Argos in the grip of the Furies. Their torment is a strangely gentle kind, returning him to a state of naive childhood that perhaps he never had in reality. He is married to Ermione, but here she seems more of a maternal figure than a lover: a woman, perhaps, who agreed to marry this tormented prince in the hope of bettering her station. She caresses and coos over him, but he seems unmoved, as though he once met her in a dream and can’t quite remember who she is. Like a man-child rock star, escaped from some rehab facility, disorientated by drink and drugs, Oreste is pursued by those who want to get him back to safety, where he can be properly confined and controlled. Pilade probably means well, but has the weariness of a man who made friends with Oreste in a better age, when he was sane, and now finds himself bound for life to the steps of this twitching, unstable creature.
Jones presents us with a grim ending that undermines the happiness proclaimed in the chorus. Like Idomeneo‘s dark conclusion, it slowly unveils the horror of the situation. Again, spoilers ahead. As Pilade sings of the tyrant’s defeat, the other members of the cast go one by one to beat Toante to death, each reemerging blood-spattered and beatific, while Pilade continues, grimly, as if by doing so he can protect himself from the growing madness around him. And then, when Oreste expresses his love for his beloved, he turns not to his wife, Ermione, but to Ifigenia, his sister. In retrospect, I realised that the two had been fascinated with each other throughout, attracted by their common suffering, their common tragic past and the possibility of healing through one another. As the programme hints, there is no world for these two damaged souls beyond each other, regardless of custom, taboo or natural laws. As they lose themselves in one another’s eyes, the other characters react in horror to the dawning realisation. It was a very smart, very twisted ending, which satisfyingly wrong-footed the audience.
I have to mention that ending because it actually dispelled some of the concerns I’d had throughout the show about Oreste’s characterisation. Simkin did an excellent job of acting – I often watched her when the focus was on other people, and she kept up Oreste’s nervous, troubled energy at all times – but I felt this Oreste was too childlike and too divorced from reality to fit the narrative imposed by the libretto. While I still wonder about this choice, Jones’s reading of the final scene did much to recast my thoughts. It’s a trick, but a clever one. While it wouldn’t work so well in a traditional production, it was effective in this totalitarian, bleak dictatorship, where all other rules have been crushed and broken. Yes, it all sometimes headed towards sensationalism, but the setting created a plausible world for the story and – not knowing that story – I was gripped by the narrative, not just the singing.
The singing, of course, was excellent. All the cast, including conductor, director and singers, are members of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artists programme, and they delivered the kind of quality you’d expect from Covent Garden. The orchestra kept things bowling along at a fine pace under the baton of James Hendry and produced a lovely crisp sound despite being hidden away under one side of the gallery. My two very small criticisms about the production would be that, first, the acting was occasionally too stagey for such a naturalistic, gritty interpretation. Some of the psychoses and eye-rolling could have been played a tad more subtly. I also wasn’t always convinced by the dumbshows which the cast played out to the music Handel added in for ballets. While these usually worked, they sometimes felt as if they were interrupting the flow of the narrative, especially in the final act. But, minor points. And, to be honest, we can probably blame Handel more than the Royal Opera House for the latter issue.
Now to the voices. Unusually for a Baroque opera, the pasticcio offers a very good group of roles for lower registers. Shimbambu’s richly-coloured bass was perfect for the role of the pernicious tyrant, and he turned in a suitably bombastic performance of his first aria, Pensa ch’io sono; while the baritone Nagy showed off a resonant, powerful voice in his first aria Orgogliosetto va l’augelletto and sang with impressive gusto throughout, although very occasionally he slipped out of time with the orchestra. In the ‘friend’ role, Atkins didn’t have all that much to do, although I enjoyed his agile, clear tenor in Vado intrepido alla morte. Indeed, as another of his arias was titled Caro amico, a morte io vo, you might fairly deduce that poor Pilade’s main function is to repeatedly offer to die for his friend. Greater love hath no man than this, and so forth.
All three ladies were incredibly strong. I didn’t initially warm to Borovko’s Ermione, as I found her rather simpering, but she turned out to have a stunning soprano. Handel gives the character a couple of real firecracker arias: Dite pace e fulminate at the end of Act 1, where gentle grace alternates with tempestuous drama; and Non sempre invendicato, near the end of Act 3, which was a gloriously stroppy aria even if I didn’t quite buy the way that Ermione was pushing Toante around. Yet she also had to cope with some slower pieces and did very well with the poignant Piango dolente il sposo. As Ermione’s unsuspected rival, Jennifer Davis made a haunted and conflicted Ifigenia, officially a soprano but with a voice that brought in some mezzo-like texture and tone. She tended to have more emotional arias, such as Dirti vorrei, in which she wrestles with her complex feelings for Filotete, and Mi lagnero, tacendo, in which she despairs over the imminent sacrifice. There was also Sento nell’ alma, in which she frees Oreste (still not knowing who he is), but while Davis performed this beautifully, it sounded strangely jaunty for its dramatic setting.
Finally there was Simkin’s Oreste, our main man. I saw Simkin as Lucilla in Jommelli’s Vologeso earlier this year and, while I liked her there, she didn’t have much space to show off in the role of the sweet wronged princess. Here she displayed a lovely mellifluous mezzo, supple and true, which easily coped with the complex coloratura of her arias Agitato da fiere tempeste and Un interrotto affetto and yet drew out all the mellow beauty of more soulful arias like Dopo l’orrore. Her gentleness as Lucilla was echoed here in the man-child Oreste and I’d be interested to see her taking on a more virile trouser role, to see how she copes with the strut and swagger of harder heroes.
This production will do much to prove – to those who desire such proofs – that opera can be gritty and thought-provoking without losing the beauty of its music. The Royal Opera House are doing a great job in championing these early operas as spaces for their young artists to thrive, while also coming up with wonderful matches of venue and theme. While, as you all know, my heart will always be with frock coats rather than graffiti, I was impressed by Jones’s creative reimagining of the story and I think the aesthetic worked very well in Wilton’s space. I sometimes felt that things could have flowed a little smoother, but I have no complaints about the strong singing across the board, and I’m going to be watching all the members of this brilliant young cast very closely in the future. I think I’m also going to have to track down one of the recordings of the opera, to savour its rich selection of arias at greater leisure.
Just a final plea to Wilton’s before I close. Please don’t let hordes of latecomers in when there are only five minutes left of Act 1, especially when they disrupt the entire audience by clambering through to get to their seats. I’m very firm on lateness. If you miss the start, you wait until the interval. You are not entitled to spoil the performance for those who made the effort to get there on time. End of rant.