Il complicated mondo di Faramondo (Britten Hall RCM, 25 March 2017)
With Faramondo we visit a more or less fictional moment from the history of Franks (Faramondo et Co.), Cimbrians (Gustavo’s people) and Swabians (Gernando’s baddies).
Before we start, I’ll direct you to Leander‘s elaborate writeup (with pictures!). You should also know that we saw the second cast (as customary, RCM fields two different teams on alternative days).
Faramondo King of the Franks: Kamilla Dunstan
Clotilde his sister: Amy Manford
Gustavo King of the Cimbrians: Julien Van Mellaerts
Rosimonda his daughter: Ashlyn Tymms
Adolfo his older son: Louise Fuller
Gernando King of the Swabians: Tom Scott-Cowell
Teobaldo Cimbrian general: Timothy Edlin
Childerico the real Sveno, Gustavo’s younger son: Eleanor Sanderson-Nash
Conductor: Laurence Cummings | London Handel Orchestra
I learned from Leander that Serse and Faramondo were written about the same time in late winter 1737. Faramondo was first performed on 3 January 1738. We can admire his work ethic and (maybe) forgive him for choosing a very shaggy (albeit popular at the time) libretto, a true smorgasboard of Baroque cliches as follows:
- star crossed lovers
- duty/love anxiety
- angsty arias about ships mercilessly tossed about by waves and winds
- honourable enemies/noble savages in this production
- backstabbers ahoy
- lecherous but kind hearted king/vacillating person in power
- babies swapped at birth
pleasure confusion, Handel used a revised version of the original Zeno libretto that had about half of the recits removed. Case in point: 2/3 in, this chap Childerico shows up and acts like he’d been there all along but I can assure you he hadn’t. There is a very good reason (by this revised libretto’s standards) he was shoe-horned in. If we check wiki we learn he was originally sung by boy wonder and Handel protege William Savage, the kid who (during his boy soprano period) sang Oberto in Alcina. He sang alto when his voice broke (here) and finally went on to create a few bass roles for Handel. Makes you think of an all rounder football player with Handel as a shrewed coach 😉
Also upon checking wiki we learn that aside from the “dad” figure, the customary bass and the title role which went to Cafarelli, the other men and women were sung by women, with a mezzo (Rosimonda) and contralto (Gernando1) thrown in. The nice variation of female voices is one of the strengths of this opera.
Then come the downsides.
The music is pleasant enough though it never gets as memorable as Serse or other Handel operas we know and love. The libretto… everybody wants Gustavo’s position, but Gernando also wants his daughter, who doesn’t want him. Faramondo and Rosimonda like each other a lot but duty/honour comes first for the both of them. Teobaldo secretly wants Gustavo’s throne and had also swapped the babies around (Childerico and Sveno).
The whole thing goes pear-shaped when Sveno (raised by an unsuspecting Gustavo as his son) is killed by… somebody, with Faramondo taking the blame for it. Gustavo has another son called Adolfo, who is of course in love with Faramondo’s sister Clotilde (they’re a very Annio-Servilia type couple). He uses his father’s love for him to stop him every time (about every 15min) Gustavo wants to kill Faramondo/his kin. Things get more complicated as Gustavo has the hots for Clotilde and justifies pursuing his son’s gf by such gems as “I’m the king, you’re my underling so you have to relinquish her to me”.
Somehow the voice of reason in all this is Clotilde, who has some choice arias (at least 2 about being tossed by waves and winds) and perhaps because of this develops a driking problem in this production and seems totally nonplussed by the very cynical ending (the hitherto noble Faramondo, friend to all, casually hacks all the baddies during his last aria (and with the help of Rosimondo, who hands him several weapons).
Likewise, the star of the show was Manford as Clotilde, who showed excellent command of coloratura, very fine Handel style and an ideal voice for this repertoire. If she likes it she should definitely pursue it. I would love to see her as Morgana, she has the comic timing and tone for that role. Her scenes were the most exciting, not just because her direction was the most logical and detailed but also because of her very promising dramatic chops. Her moves did come off as a bit studied – but enthusiastically so – yet you could see a natural actress developing, who stayed in character even when she wasn’t at the centre of the action. By the end she had the audience in stitches.
Dunstan (you may remember her as Ariodante from last year) once again cut a fine figure as the hero and put on a solid vocal performance, with some fine projection and elaborate fioriture, though I admit I prefer her sensitive Ariodante.
Ashlyn Tymms’s lounge singer Rosimonda was one of this production’s better ideas. Much as I enjoy updated productions, sometimes, when very specific historical moments as involved it’s not esay to get into the vision. The lounge singer heroine isn’t an original take but it has time and again proved at least efficient (especially if one enjoys ’40s noir). Dramatically Tymms was also one of the better performers in a production where Personnenregie was erratic at best.
On the one hand we had Clotilde and Rosimonda’s clearly developed personas, on the other we had a pretty loosely designed Faramondo, charicature baddies and unclear Gustavo (is he just an upright chap succumbing to temptation in regards to Clotilde or is he creepy?) with bonus dramatically
useless cheesy hanger-ons who pretty much clogged the stage when their bosses’ arias were being sung.
Anyway, Rosimonda is the kind of strong Baroque woman angstily2 bound by duty with “heavy hearted” arias that need a fuller voice, hence the mezzo designation. For whatever reason Tymms sounded to me like a dramatic soprano in the making but maybe she’s a Stephanie Blythe type of mezzo.
Gernando, sung by Scott-Cowell (last year’s Polinesso), was, Leander and I guessed, a schemer messed up on drugs (he sniffs glue/helium during his revenge aria, which is kind of odd but hey3). Once again Scott-Cowell was plagued by a
silly unidimesional directorial choice, so it’s hard to gauge his dramatic skills. I thought his singing was fine, a clear improvement over last year.
London Handel Orchestra under Cummings generally did a commendable job accomodating the students’ speeds.
Given it was a very pleasant day and also because it was my first time at RCM since I moved, I actually gave myself plenty of time to get there. No Lamborghini sightings, but I realised it’s not the Scientology Church across the street from The Science Museum but the Mormon Church. So now you know. Also: at (my) leisure pace, the walk from the South Ken tube station to Britten Hall is 10min long.
- Though I thought the inclusion a countertenor Gernando worked well. Perhaps a countertenor with a better defined bottom (hey! not that one) might’ve worked even better. ↩
- It’s not tragic if it ends well. ↩
- If we’re going for aggressivity-inducing drugs, wouldn’t meth be the immediate choice? Or is this too American? ↩