Monday, May 16, 2022
Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers
Imeneo was Handel’s penultimate opera, reaching the stage in 1740, just one year before he composed Messiah. But even as his fortunes as a composer of opera waned during the 1730s from the heights he had achieved in the previous decade with the benefit of royal patronage, he continued to explore and adapt the conventions of opera seria that he had been cultivating for nearly forty years.
The theme of a Greek legend was unusual for him, so its apparently elevated moral tone makes Imeneo something more like a serenata (it was presented, in a shortened form, as one when Handel gave performances of it in Dublin in 1742 during the same trip that saw the premiere of Messiah). But the almost humorous way in which that is treated, along with often shorter arias – more like ariettas and cavatinas – and several ensembles, presages the form of opera buffa, just like his immediately preceding opera, Serse (they are both based upon older librettos by Silvio Stampiglia).
In this story of entangled love interests, Paul Carr’s production for the Royal Academy of Music in its 200th-anniversary year entirely foregoes the work’s mythical aspects (Imeneo is supposed to be Hymen, the god of marriage). It is turned into a modern-day serial or reality-TV show, set at Argenio’s taverna on the Greek coast, as though an episode of Love Island. Imeneo is a local stud who saves Rosmene and Clomiri from traffickers (rather than pirates) and when asked by Argenio what he desires for his reward, requests Rosmene’s hand in marriage. The drama of Handel’s original scenario arises from the fact that Rosmene is already in love with Tirinto, whilst Clomiri has fallen for Imeneo herself. But that conflict between love and duty, and its consequent jealousies and agonies, are cut short and resolved rather sentimentally and simplistically in this production, in favour of love, as Rosmene is allowed to remain with Tirinto rather than acquiesce with the wishes of her rescuer, whilst Imeneo is suddenly and happily paired off with Clomiri, ending here with the exquisite duet ‘Per le porte’ (borrowed from Sosarme, 1732) for the former pair.
Handel’s original is more sophisticated, in that Rosmene settles upon Imeneo out of gratitude and duty, rather than merely following the apparent dictates of her heart. Like Così fan tutte, it tells us something intricate and unsettling about the nature of amorous relations, and Handel skilfully underlines that emotional ambiguity by setting the ostensibly happy concluding chorus (omitted here) in a minor key, questioning the decisions made in the preceding narrative and sympathising with Tirinto’s rejection.
If Carr’s production can be defended as falling in line with the emotional trajectory of Handel’s score (even if not the text of the libretto) nevertheless it rather flattens the multi-dimensional complexity of the original and prevents us from weighing up the options for ourselves. That simplification is also portended by the appearance of the now commonplace tag (if it ever had any meaning in the first place) ‘Love is love’, stuck across a suitcase on the stage. The London Handel Festival’s staging in 2013 potently managed to keep the ambiguity by pairing off Clomiri with Tirinto but having them ‘rightfully’ link hands clandestinely with Imeneo and Rosmene respectively in the final coro.
The production also damages the ingenuity of the score. Not only is that disturbing final minor-key chorus cut, the short arioso passages on ‘Se la mia pace’ which Imeneo and Tirinto each hurl out to Rosmene in turn (to the same music) insisting she make up her mind are also omitted. As a result, when those characters repeat their demand in duet (which alone is kept here) and still with the same music, Handel’s great stroke of musical wit is completely eradicated. Furthermore, by ending with ‘Per le porte’ – a famous number even in Handel’s time, which his audiences would have recognised as having been borrowed – for Rosmene and Tirinto as the climax and resolution of this production, that eliminates the ironic, even subversive, use to which he put his own music by having included that number at this point. Here it becomes the straightforward expression of their union and reconciliation. But in the original, without the preceding recitative excised and Rosmene having settled upon Imeneo, this duet with Tirinto then becomes a tragically poignant expression of the latter’s resignation to his loss – an emotional layer the celebrated duet did not carry in its first use in Sosarme (and another future parallel with Così where Mozart and Da Ponte were also engaged in an ironic dialogue with received operatic conventions to heighten their dramatic points).
The performance does at least retain Rosmene’s feigned mad scene, in which Handel evidently satirises that set-piece in so many operas prior to this, and probably also was thinking back to his own remarkable example in Orlando. Other cuts throughout Imeneo bring it more in line with the shortened revision Handel made for Dublin in 1742 (as well as the use of ‘Per le porte’) though it may be nit-picking to point out that other aspects, such as casting Imeneo as a baritone, conforms with the 1740 performances.
The conflation of versions suggests that Anthony Lewis’s edition was used or drawn upon, perhaps in homage to the fact that he directed the RAM’s performance in 1972 when Felicity Lott sang in it. Comparing the recordings by Andreas Spering and Fabio Biondi of Handel’s earlier and later versions, respectively, reveals the differences.
Fortunately, Handel’s sense of levity and playing around with the hallowed components of opera seria was preserved in David Bates’s brisk and, at times, even seemingly irreverent account of the score – but so firmly in control of its quirks and stylised flourishes as to be entirely knowing and deliberate. After the boisterous Overture, there was often a pounding energy, drawing attention to Handel’s streamlined textures and repeated bass notes, in which he moved away from the denser contrapuntal type of aria he had typically composed, to the newer, increasingly fashionable Neapolitan style. Tirinto’s ‘Se potessero’ – based upon David’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ from the recently written Saul – was no reflective soliloquy, but remorselessly purposeful; ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’ surged with the furious vigour of Messiah’s ‘Why do the nations rage’ which it anticipates; and ‘Per le porte’ was swift and cheerful (given its altered context) rather than wallowing.
Amidst so much bustle (which gets through Imeneo in about eighty-five minutes, without an interval) Ellen Wilkinson’s poignant oboe solo stands out all the more in emphasising the difficult decision which Rosmene has to make between her two suitors.
Will Pate sings the title part stylishly, with a good grasp of the Italian words and rolled ‘r’s, and vivid colour in his music. Bernadette Johns as his rival, in the trouser-role of Tirinto, is mellower and steadier in voice, perhaps confident of claiming Rosmene in the end. Cassandra Wright sings the latter part with steely force, but maintaining clarity of line, excepting a tiny break in the wide-ranging melody of ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’. Josi Ann Ellem sings with a rich lower register as Clomiri, and quite wide vibrato, expressing determination and urgency, though some of the notes become almost gargled as a result, and there could be more nuance in ‘V’è un infelice’ with its Mozartean shifts in feeling. Hovhannes Karapetyan provides a solid, sustained musical presence in the second bass role, Argenio,
Overall, this is a lively enough production that provides an effective, amusing introduction to Handel in a very untypical opera that has often been unfairly dismissed as being of no importance. But for discerning Handelians, aware of its complex textual background, it makes a travesty and a mess of what the composer wrote.
Further performances to May 19 at 7 p.m. with alternating casts
Imeneo – Opera in three Acts to a libretto after Silvio Stampiglia [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]
Imeneo – Will Pate
Tirinto – Bernadette Johns
Clomiri – Josi Ann Ellem
Rosmene – Cassandra Wright
Argenio – Hovhannes Karapetyan
Royal Academy Sinfonia conducted by David Bates
Paul Carr – Director
Stewart J. Charlesworth – Set & Costume Designer
Harry Armitage – Lighting Designer