Opera: Alessandro Severo Britten Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
It was bound to be a nervous occasion: the opera had not been staged for 259 years. What's more, while the pit contained the excellent London Handel Orchestra, the cast came from the Opera Department of the London Royal Schools' Vocal Faculty (ODLRSVF), so the performance was also an audition.

Alessandro Severo is a pasticcio, an opera made up of music taken from other works. First performed in 1738, most of the recycled music came from operas presented in the previous season, Arminio, Giustino and Berenice, though Handel also raided seven of his other works. In the event, we were in for a pleasant surprise: the plot kept our interest engaged and few would complain at having another chance to hear some of Handel's hit songs. Occasionally it felt as though the action was waylaid to allow for a number to be inserted. Marziano's "Nasce al bosco in rozza cuna" (from Ezio) was one such. It was not helped by an inept staging: Marziano plied the Emperor with drink, so he slept through the reprise of the aria's first section. Luckily, the bass James Rutherford performed it so vividly that all cavilling ceased. This was the low point of Mike Ashman's production, which too often invented excessive business in three stages, slavishly following the arias' structure.

The rehearsal period had been curtailed and this showed. As opening- night nerves relaxed, the performers came into their own: the counter- tenor Lawrence Zazzo scored a great hit in the title role, wielding a splendid voice and a considerable stage presence. His Act 2 aria "Salda quercia in erta balza" was one of the high points of the evening. As his put-upon wife, Mary Nelson was underpowered at first but blossomed later: her last aria was radiantly sung. Alison Kettlewell glowered effectively in the crucial role of the resentful Kabanicha-Empress Mother Giulia.

The Britten Theatre seats 420 and should be ideal for Handel's operas. At times, however, the conductor, Denys Darlow, allowed the orchestra to drown the singers. Jenny Grahn acted the travesti role of Claudio with aplomb, and her performance was never unmusical, but her voice was so soft-grained that "Vedi l'ape" went for almost nothing. Hilary Dolamore as Albina was another singer who might shine more in other repertory: her voice has a lovely timbre, but her decorations were wayward. For the sets, Bernard Culshaw supplied an unusually effective series of intensely coloured drapes, while the dramatic lighting of Benny Ball helped focus attention on the singers. All in all, congratulations are in order for the ODLRSVF and London Handel Society.

Further perfs today (same cast) and tomorrow (second cast) (0181 336 0990)

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