Tolomeo, London Handel Festival, Britten Hall, London

An Egyptian bunny boiler to put Cleopatra in the shade
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The Independent Culture

Strange as it may seem from someone who loves Handel, I was not looking forward to Tolomeo. Every year, the London Handel Festival dusts off one of his 40-odd operas, casts them with the most promising students it can find, and presents a short run in the lovely acoustics of the Britten Theatre. Every year, one also has the sinking feeling that this will be the last time one will see that particular opera staged.

More often than not, the featured work is not one of the handful that have made their way back into core repertoire, though it is increasingly obvious that any failure to make the grade has more to do with the libretti than it has with the music. That, and the difficulty of staging an opera where psychological development is more important than who loves whom, or whether the poison is in the vessel with the pestle or the flagon with the dragon, for an audience less versed in ancient history than their 18th-century counterparts.

In 21st-century London, where, courtesy of Shakespeare and the Carry On team, Cleopatra has enjoyed more lasting fame than her relatives, the story of Ptolemy IX is more University Challenge than pub quiz trivia. James Conway's text-sensitive staging, a co-production with English Touring Opera, who begin an ambitious baroque project later this year, wisely avoided playing Tolomeo as a costume drama, thereby closing the gap between the audience and the stricken Egyptian.

Michael Vale's severe set - variations of which I've seen in his Puccini and Poulenc - afforded due concentration to the torments of the shipwrecked hero (Patricia Orr), his winsome wife Seleuce (Katherine Manley), his sweet-natured brother Alessandro (Christopher Ainslie), the manipulative Elisa (the magnificent Laura Mitchell), and her thuggish brother Araspe (Kostas Smoriginas). For a young cast, their performances were confident, with Mitchell's bunny boiler the most compelling and entertaining characterisation.

Though festival director Lawrence Cummings is a reliable whizz at Handel, his account of Tolomeo was similarly on another level to last year's offering. Brisk, poised, plangent, tightly phrased, carefully edited, and paced in such a way as to side-step any Act II ennui, Cumming's conducting was consistently energised, stylish and sympathetic. So obviously beneficial to the London Handel Festival is this partnership with English Touring Opera that I hope it will become an annual event. Not least because it may signal an era in which mainstream companies look beyond Giulio Cesare, Ariodante, Orlando, Alcina and Xerxes.

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