After attending the performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora atChrist Church Cathedral, I can’t help quoting Dick O’Riordan’s words about the recent RIAM’s production of a Monteverdi’s opera (Il ballo delle ingrate): Theodora, too, “displayed once again what marvellous seams of musical gold and operatic nuggets continue to be mined from that era.”
A collaboration between the vocal ensemble Sestina Music and Irish Baroque Orchestra, the oratorio was presented in a staged version and set in contemporary times. Leaving aside the superfluous need to try and bring closer to us anything that in opera feels ‘old’, as well as the questionable but popular habit of dramatising the overture, the performance was superb.
The story tells of the Christian Theodora resisting the Romans’ order to worship the pagan gods, and of the converted Didimus, in love with her, ending up sacrificing his life together with Theodora in the vain attempt to save hers.
The young singers impressed. Countertenor Joseph Zubier as Didimus showed excellent singing and a promising voice. Peter Harris, as the compassionate Roman soldier Septimius, sang with conviction and control and displayed an alluring tenor voice. Bass Aaron O’Hare was a fitting Valens, the cruel officer.
Outstanding in the role of Theodora was Charlotte Trepress: her broad ranging soprano was always richly expressive and beautifully modulated, her performance culminating in the exquisite aria “Oh, that I on wings could rise”. The chorus was equally impressive. Conducted by Mark Chambers, finally, Irish Baroque Orchestra’s performance was as divine as Handel’s score.
If listening to Theodora alone, one could have a particularly hard time understanding all the blame thrown in the past on baroque music: superficial, overly ornamental and disjointed from reality. The infinitely intelligent writing of this work shows that ornamentation is not, necessarily, the opposite of substance.
Have you ever seen a world renowned opera singer sitting patiently at the back corner of the stage for a good fifteen minutes while waiting for the audience to fill the auditorium? The term “anti-diva” as epithet of Joyce DiDonato has been used extensively, but really that’s the first appellative coming to mind when entering in contact with her extraordinary presence. All about her is genuine passion for her job, and no trace of a primadonna demeanor.
The programme, with the title “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music”, presented a series of arias and instrumental pieces by baroque composers with a predominant presence of Handel’s arias. The fil rouge of the pieces were the internal battles that a human soul may face in the course of its life, encompassing the spectrum of emotions that goes from rage and despair to relief and elation.
Joyce DiDonato was accompanied on stage by the young orchestra il pomo d’oro, which specialises in period instruments and was conducted by the 29 years old Maxim Emelyanychev. The presence of choreographer and dancer Manuel Palazzo added a visual element to the show.
Although based on baroque repertoire, the aesthetic of the show was a modern one, with the mezzo-soprano wearing two somewhat futuristic Vivienne Westwood’s gowns matched by eccentric make up, like a painter’s colours’ palette had been splashed into her face and neckline. The dancer was wearing a plain, long skirt-like outfit, while the projections on the walls were variously coloured, ornate and abstract silhouettes.
The common challenge of recitals – even for an experienced singer – is bringing to life arias outside of their dramatic and narrative context. Joyce DiDonato mastered this task beautifully throughout the evening, ensuring that this wasn’t simply an occasion to showcase her “24 carat gold” voice (The Times), but really a chance to actively engage the audience and make it part of a heartfelt performance.
It would be difficult to single out highlight pieces, except for mere personal preference. “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro” (from Andromaca by Leonardo Leo) was delivered with dramatic strength and high pathos, as required by the grim lyrics. “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Rinaldo, Handel) was probably the most well known piece in the programme and possibly the most moving for the winning combination of a catchy melody, beautiful Italian lyrics and the quite personal interpretation of the singer. “Crystal streams in murmurs flowing” (from Handel’s oratorio Susanna) and “Augelletti che cantate” (again from Rinaldo) were simply delightful, offering a much needed light counterpoint to the previous gloomy and agitated arias. In this last piece Anna Fusek enthralled the audience with her recorder mimicking a bird’s song and playfully duetting with the singer’s voice.
The orchestra sounded, at once, impeccably polished and deeply passionate. Harmony was the real keyword of the performance, not last for a remarkable synchrony of the players.
With a speech preceding the last encore (“Morgen” by Richard Strauss), DiDonato provided more insight into the concert’s programme, attributing its original conception to the horror of the Paris attacks in November 2015. “I did now want to do something just for show”, she said, adding how she thought art was an effective medium to create peace.
The dancer was, on this occasion, like an expensive piece of jewellery worn by a young and beautiful woman: impressive on its own, but redundant and distracting in the final outfit. Both the singing and the music were indeed nothing short of perfection, delivering memorable musical fireworks.
Review of the performance at O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin, 11/5/17.
Baroque opera is not exactly mainstream repertoire, and yet, the relatively small opera stage of Dublin has seen so far in 2017 already three baroque works: The Fairy Queen produced by RIAM, the recent Acis and Galatea by Opera Theatre Company, and now the Radamisto of Northern Ireland Opera directed by Wayne Jordan, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Brophy.
Let’s start by saying that NIO were quite corageous in putting together a production of Radamisto in the first place, which is quite different from the comparatively easy pastoral drama Acis and Galatea and from the possibly more melodic Purcell’s opera. If you are not familiar with Baroque opera, you may well be disoriented by its conventions: men roles taken up by women en travesti (or men singing with a female voice), lengthy da capo arias, tragic, convoluted historical plots followed by sudden and unlikely happy endings. As much as one may love the classics, this is material that screams for some sort of modernisation for the uninitiated audience, and Wayne Jordan’s direction delivers just the right amount of it.
The whole production – from marketing to costumes to direction – tries really hard to speak to a modern audience. With the advertisement announcing a “thrilling tale of sex, power and corruption”, we see on stage a relatively dynamic dramatisation of a work that is really static, not for lack of plot’s twists and turns, but by its own nature of baroque opera, with the music at its core. Jordan’s approach is undoubtedly clever and fascinating. While this is his first direction of an opera (his background is in theatre), he seems to grasp perfectly well the peculiar and defining attribute of abstraction of baroque opera. This understanding is manifested both through costumes and direction. While the costumes are a wondrous surreal pastiche of classical iconography freely and anachronistically mixed with variously modern imagery, the direction uses irony as both interpretation key and leitmotif. Nothing feels gratuitous, except maybe the extreme ridicule and clownification of the character of Tigrane, possibly going a step too far and unwarranted by the libretto.
But all the characters are, more or less explicitly, treated as marionettes (or mannequins, as the advertising picture meaningfully suggests). The introduction of a butler-like figure (Michael Patrick) wearing a tuxedo and acting often as a puppet master is a double-meaning metatheatrical gimmick: he stands, on one hand, as a director alter ego, portraying the palpable struggle of creating some drama and physical movement on stage; on the other, he represents Handel himself, treating singers as puppets completely enslaved to the music, the real, overwhelming hero of the show.
And it’s exactly on the quality of the singers and the orchestra, not on any even excellent staging, that ultimately lies the weight of a successful performance of an opera like this. Although Handel’s music aims at the intellect and not at the heart, there were some thrilling moments in the evening delivered by each and every singer. In particular, soprano Aoife Miskelly in the role of Polissena was consistently powerful and expressive. The two mezzo-sopranos shone each in very different ways: Doreen Curran with her rich and metallic coloratura delivered a poignant and believable Radamisto, while Kate Allen’s dramatic mezzo voice dominated the theatre in the role of Tigrane, emphasising the contrast with her clownish costume and movements and coming out almost unexpected. Sinéad Campbell Wallace was a good Zenobia.
The opera was translated into English from the original Italian. Although it’s always a bit of a violence to separate the music from its original libretto, I can see the necessity here due to the convoluted plot. But possibly the best option is always that of leaving the original language and providing English subtitles.
With all the bravura displayed in the evening by all of the cast, you couldn’t help but wondering what all this should have sounded like, back in the XVIII century, with the castrati for which the male leading roles were written: for how barbaric the practice was, together with Handel’s music they must have sounded out of this world. Which is exactly the nature and purpose of baroque opera: that of being something else, transcending reality and getting to the abstract heights of pure art.
Northern Ireland Opera made a commendable effort of tapping into unusual repertoire and making it more relatable to modern audiences through the use of irony and metatheatre, with a result both very clever and very enjoyable, as well as musically remarkable.