If that great expert on Handel’s operas, Winton Dean, took three large pages to explain the plot of the Master’s 1726 Alessandro, your scribe hasn’t a hope in hell of reducing it to a paragraph. Presumably Handel chose the story because it contained juicy parts for the two prima donne in the cast, the one long in his company, Cuzzoni, the one he famously threatened to defenestrate if she didn’t mind her ps and qs and the latest Italian import, Faustina Bordoni.
Things were not exactly made clearer by the stage director, William Relton, who updated the action to Oxford in the twenties, dreaming spires but with a touch of blackshirt thuggery from the thirties. The problem of course with Handel operas is the almost complete lack of ensembles and the plethora of arias in that old ABA form. If you don’t do something with them, yawning can set in; and if you spice it up too much, you risk damage to Handel’s beautiful music.
The beginning was not too promising with Alex (for short, kissing Clito in the overture.) And then the first numbers took place in: a) rugger scrums, b) a tea party, c) a sconcing and d) a lavatory. My sense of propriety at this point diminished because the staging was so brilliant, even though, as usual when you start juggling with centuries, the mores, manners and class distinctions go to pot. Once one realised that the producer’s motto was ‘anything goes’ things developed towards the end into a ‘top hat, white tie and tails’ number, one could than relax and let one’s blood pressure alone.
It was all great fun; the singers had good voices and could cope with the coloratura bravura runs, roulades and other vocal devices that Handel composed as well as the wonderful lyrical tunes. Countertenors that sounded musical and the two ladies were excellent. Slim Susanna Hurrell (Roxana) could roll about on the floor and still sing perfectly, and give an exposition of happiness; Sarah-Jane Brandon (Lisaura), more spacious in looks, was wonderfully expressive. Christopher Lowery (Alessandro) had a daffy look but a great commend of his florid countertenor music. James Oldfield (Clito) sounded a beautiful bass voice. But there were also stars in the pit: Laurence Cummings directed the London Handel Orchestra, period instruments of course, purity down below if not up above.
There is probably a halfway house between this foolery and purist straight stuff but until someone with taste, respect and imagination comes along with a better solution this hit-and-miss kind of production will have to do. This one certainly worked, ‘up to a point, Lord Copper.’
- John Amis