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Classical review: Imeneo, Britten Theatre, London

Tremendous fun with rude and crude humour

Imeneo was the last Italian opera Handel wrote, and also the shortest.

Its London premiere was such a flop that it didn’t get a second performance, with Charles Jennens – Handel’s librettist for Messiah – declaring that ‘it was the worst of all Handel’s compositions’.

Its plot, moreover, was not calculated to set the pulse racing. Stolen by pirates, fair Rosmene is liberated by the dashing Imeneo, aka the god of marriage, who expects her to return the compliment by marrying him, but she is betrothed to the flamboyant Tirinto. Each man pressures her to decide in his favour, and after a melodramatic wrestle with her conscience she settles for Imeneo: duty must prevail over feeling. It was a bold stroke for conductor Laurence Cummings to open the London Handel Festival with a production of this rarity by singers from the Royal College of Music.

The time is now, and the curtain rises on some pillars and arches beside a Mediterranean beach where Tirinto, sung by Tai Oney, laments his beloved’s absence. And this black American countertenor really is something: for the first fifteen minutes he dominates the stage, and as his aria goes through many changes of colour and mood, so does his warm and opulent sound. On comes Imeneo: as played by the superb young tenor Luke D Williams in an off-the-shoulder gold lamé ball-dress – his battle disguise – this becomes the flourish which sets the drama in motion.

It’s all tremendous fun. While Hannah Sandison’s Rosmene exerts imperious sway, Katherine Crompton’s Clomiri has the hots for Imeneo and makes seductive advances to him; Bradley Travis’s resonantly-sung Argenio, the voice of reason, completes the quintet; waiters and waitresses form a small but effective chorus.

Running gags with towels and iPhones - at one point Imeneo launches into a Gangnam routine - dictate that the humour should be rude and crude. But these singers have excellent comic timing, and under Paul Curran’s direction manage to do full justice both to their characters and to the demands of the score - vintage Handel and, as Cummings and his period-instrument ensemble deliver it, wonderfully rich and varied. Sandison’s powerfully-sung climactic aria becomes the trigger for some delightfully deft group clowning: since this is one of two alternative casts, the inference must be that the Royal College is currently stuffed with new talent.