Radamisto: George Frideric Handel (1720)

Handel: Radamisto

★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 13 October 2018)

Baroque naming conventions can be confusing. An opera is often named after the highest-ranking character, or on rarer occasions its protagonist, but English Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Radamisto leaves you wondering what this prince of Thrace has done to earn to the title role. Surely this should be called Zenobia or Polissena? While the men skulk on the sidelines, Handel (and ETO) give agency to the opera’s two feisty women, who are forced to take the initiative when their menfolk prove unequal to the task. Set in early Christian Armenia, this is a timeless story of how a ruler’s lust can unsettle his judgement and lead his country to ruin – which nevertheless holds out the possibility of change and redemption. Kicking off at the Hackney Empire, and then going on a tour all over England, this is a visually gorgeous production, slightly undermined by an uneven cast.

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Giulio Cesare: George Frideric Handel (1724)

Handel: Giulio Cesare

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 7 October 2017)

2018 is shaping up to be the Year of Cesare. Three different productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare are on my radar, each within a manageable distance of London. With this in mind, I wanted to belatedly post my thoughts on the forerunner to this embarrassment of riches: English Touring Opera’s ambitious two-part production, which descended on the Hackney Empire back in October for a weekend of intrigue, desire, conquest and general skulduggery. Visually splendid, with a dazzling Cleopatra, it was weakened only by the eccentric splitting of the opera. But I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, rally your legions, let the sand sink into your sandals, and imagine yourself back in Alexandria in 48 BC…

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Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 15 October 2016)

Most operas are about infatuation: the sudden, all-consuming flare of love that causes kingdoms to fall, mountains to crumble and worlds to change – the love of Paris for Helen, for example. We don’t hear quite so often about the quieter, more enduring kind of love that ‘withstands tempests and is never shaken’. Yet here, in his second surviving opera, Monteverdi does just that. His heroes, Ulysses and Penelope, aren’t tumultuous young things: on the contrary, they’re two people of a certain age, trying to make the best of a bad job. It doesn’t sound terribly dramatic, does it? And it isn’t, if by drama you mean fire and the clash of steel. But it’s one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in opera so far, because it takes the power out of the hands of kings and emperors, and lays bare the workings of the human heart.

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Calisto: Francesco Cavalli (1651)

Cavalli: Calisto

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 14 October 2016)

On Friday night it was time for the second opera in ETO’s autumn Baroque trilogy (the first was their Battle of Britain Xerxes). This time we were going back to the mid-17th century for Cavalli’s Calisto, which on the surface is an exuberant pantomime in song about gods behaving badly in the forests of Arcadia. Beneath the raunchiness, however, this opera has a surprisingly radical message. In a fascinating pre-show talk, the director and conductor Tim Nelson explored allusions to Galileo and the defeat of faith by reason, which – if this isn’t just the result of academic over-reading – would make the apparently frothy Calisto a subversive commentary on the biggest controversy of the day.

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Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

Handel: Xerxes

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 8 October 2016)

Xerxes and Spitfires both rank pretty highly on the list of things I get excited about, but I never imagined I’d have cause to refer to them both in the same sentence. Now that has all changed, thanks to English Touring Opera’s revival production, which transplants our favourite brat-prince to the airfields of the Battle of Britain. It opens with the glorious sight of our misguided king serenading a Spitfire (plane tree – plane – Spitfire – brilliant), as he contemplates his new campaign to rule the skies of Europe, and it’s sheer fun from there on in.

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