Opera: Handel's greatest bits

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The Independent Culture




IN CONTEMPORARY terms, Handel's Lotario is a prequel, since it fills in background to his earlier Ottone. And as Lotario wasn't a hit when it was premiered in 1729, Handel, as was his habit, had no qualms about plundering its best bits for later works. Even the libretto wasn't specific to Lotario, being a reworking of a text that more than one composer had already set as Adelaide.

Well, that's how things worked then. Our notions of autonomous works of art, of rounded characters, don't fit in opera seria, where what mattered was the ability to summon up a sequence of situations and emotions with music to match. Plot, as we know it, was but the slenderest of threads. That doesn't mean that one Handel opera works as well as any other, and Lotario is generally thought one of his least successful pieces.

Whether that makes it a good choice for Denys Darlow's 22nd London Handel Festival is a moot point. When the festival started, all Handel's operas were rarities. We're no longer quite so seria-starved, yet none of the operas are commonplace. Instead of rarity for its own sake, it might have been better to offer a proven classic, and to stage it in English rather than blast the audience with hours of Italian (following text in the word- books provided is both impractical and anti-theatrical).

With verbal communication compromised, there's a feeling that, to show what the words can't tell, Robert Chevara's staging relies on an uncomfortable blend of exaggerated naturalism and half-baked expressionism. When Character A isn't waving a knife at Character B's throat, Character C is standing on a chair to denote emotional extremity. Although these may not be "characters" in the modern theatrical sense, they're more than prettily singing ninnies. Yet Chevara's young singers respond with enthusiasm and skill: Kristina Wahlin enjoyed herself as the jolly villainess Matilde, while Darren Abrahams made Berengario sound sweet even while he struggled to match his wife's antic sadism.

The casts (two line-ups over three nights) are assembled from the London Royal Schools' opera departments, and if none of the singers is yet at one with Handel's exorbitant idiom, the singing is graceful, expressive and often imaginatively ornamented.

In the title role, William Towers's falsetto is a little fragile, but his phrasing is idiomatic and his hearing soulful. The show's star, though, is Natasha Marsh's Adelaide, vocally radiant through all manner of dramatic indignities. An occasional tendency to overburden the singing line with expressive effect is born of a genuine dramatic impulse that promises interesting developments over the next few years.

In the pit, Paul Nicholson treats his singers with care, and gets colourfully idiomatic playing from the London Handel Orchestra. Whatever my doubts, there are still plenty of reasons to be grateful for the London Handel Festival.

Further performance tonight (0181-336 0990). The London Handel Festival continues until 25 April