The well-mannered Elpidia (London Handel Fest, 31 March 2016)
Las week I was back to St George’s Hanover Sq. for a dose of Spring pasticcio. This time it was made up of slices from Vinci and Orlandini, mixed together by DJ Handel. The concoction resembled a fruit tarte, in that it was neither too heavy nor too fast. Generally speaking, a night of (very good) gentle singing across the board.
Belisario, bass-baritone: Chris Jacklin
Olindus, mezzo castrato: Rupert Enticknap
Ormonte, alto castrato: Joe Bolger
Elpidia, soprano: Erica Eloff
Vitiges, tenor: Rupert Charlesworth
Rosmilda, mezzo: Maria Ostroukhova
Musical director: Leo Duarte | Orchestra of Opera Settecento
Before the perfomance started it was also revealed that the now traditional Opera Settecento September opera at Cadogan Hall will be J. A. Hasse’s Demetrio, on a very popular libretto by Papa Mestastasio.
This time yours truly messed up big time with self positioning. The right aisle has one bonus only: you have a great view of the orchestra and the singers before they reach the stage aria. And that is the only time you do. Also the overhang muffles the sound a bit which is further compromised by the proximity of the low strings. That is to say you will get to hear the low end of the orchestra very well and that’s a good thing if they sound as good as they did in this case. But all other delicate touches are out. And that night was the kind of night where soft singing was the order of the
Another thing was the flower arrangement. Lilies are pretty but this close to inducing a headache.
Woe is me aside, a quick look at the cast will inform a London Baroque Scene follower that singing would be of the highest calibre. I am very happy to report none of the known and loved disappointed. Out of the cast the only one I had not heard before was countertenor Joe Bolger. Usually we listen to countertenors for their agility at the higher end of their voice yet here the role sits much lower. It was interesting hearing Bolger though I find it hard to describe how he sounded. I wouldn’t say it was close to female contralto. Perhaps more like a dark mezzo? Yet Ostroukhova was right there and he sounded nothing like her either. Rather more opaque than your regular countertenor. Occasionally I thought he could be a tenor – in colour if not in texture. Like I said, hard to describe.
But what is Elpidia (or The Generous Rivals) about? It’s set in Emperor Justinian’s time. When most of us think of Justinian we think of
ex-stripper Empress Theodora Ravenna, because that was that town’s heyday. Well, this libretto starts when Ravenna was still an Ostrogoth capital under King Vitiges. Greek (and bearded) Princes Olindus and Ormonte are fighting along the great General Belisario to re-capture Italy, one region at a time. For now it’s Ravenna (so it must be the year 540). As per opera seria historical fact is but a background and the two princes are competing for someone’s love instead.
That someone is Elpidia, Princess of Apulia. She loves Olindo but being excessively given to strategic thinking, she says she’s game to marry the bravest of the two. Of course Vitiges throws a spanner in the works by capturing Elpidia whilst Ormonte in turn captures Vitiges’ daughter, Rosmilda. Like Elpidia, Rosmilda also thinks strategically and – in the blink of an eye – falls in love with her captor1. Thems was the times, eh? Women had to keep positive and go with the flow – because Ormonte will marry her in the end, but only after Olindus threatens to accuse him of treason and thus forces him to abandon pursuing Elpidia. Generous rivals indeed.
It is a bit curious that Handel chose mid-tempo, gentle arias to illustrate this episode. As the funny opera seria quiz at the back of the programme sums it up, it’s the kind of opera where cielo! and oh, dio! are more common utterances than the usual navicella and mar turbata, though guinea fowl gets one fist pumping mention. Belisario as Top Man (not guinea fowl) has one nervous aria in act I and then Olindus one in act III – and I think Vitige had something less than placid – but act II is Melancholy Central. Nonetheless, both Olindus and Elpidia, as primo uomo and the eponymous character, have arias that give the singers ample opportunity to show off their pp chops. Both Enticknap and Eloff did an excellent job with their parts, now ringing notes, now piano softness, consistently good vocal acting. I was amused by the icy looks Elpidia shot Vitiges when he captured her. If only they had more memorable music…
As music goes, my favourite bit was Belisario’s above mentioned nervous aria from act I, which had a very catchy (and somewhat familiar) rhythm carried off with lots of energy by the strings all the way to our side aisle. I remembered Jacklin from last year’s Catone in Utica, for the memorable hair (still with us and Jacklin still energetic) and Vivaldi’s romp Benche n’asconda. Now that’s the kind of Italian Baroque I can get behind. Charlesworth’s (bearded2) Vitiges made some worthy noise and shook his Ostrogoth mane with authority. Since Elpidia and the rivals were parked in the high register, I was a bit alarmed when Belisario and Rosmilda didn’t return for act II, worrying they had been prematurely killed off. They thankfully came back for act III. That was (I think) when Rosmilda had a soulful aria that gave Ostroukhova a moment to show the gentle side of her characterful voice. Too short a moment, though.
In conclusion, I was very happy with the singing as such and the Opera Settecento’s orchestra sounded energetic as usual but I wasn’t so keen with how DJ Handel had organised this programme.
PS: After the performance, Leander, Baroque Bird and yours truly shuffled towards the exit and ran into Ostroukhova who was most gracious during the brief chat.