Friday, April 17, 2009


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


It seems that anything composed by Richard Wagner will draw applauding crowds these days. The Ring is always sold out and just now all performances of the first opera he composed, at the age of twenty, are drawing full houses in a Paris run at that lovely Chatelets theatre. I saw the second performance of Die Feen on March 29.

Wagner, as always wrote his own libretto, taking a story by Carlo Gozzi, a tale about fairies and mortals. Arindal as loved by a fairy, Ada, who has him under a spell. Ada wants to hand in her fairy cards and marry a mortal, a tenor natch. To this end, he has to perform some fiendish tasks and suffer some even more fiendish torments from her. Meanwhile back at the ranch his sister Lora is defending Arindal’s kingdom which is going to ruin. It takes 3 long acts before a happy ending is reached; even with cuts Die Feen lasts three hours.

Now Wagner in his prime can last longer than that but by that time he could beguile you, bedevil you with leading motives, orchestral splendour and even occasionally enchant you with melody. But not at the age of twenty. Mainly he serves up the sort of music he was conducting at that period of his life ‘like Weber not under pressure’ Ernest Newman wrote. There are not many memorable moments in Die Feen although the fledging composer was capable of writing a score, suitably planned, but with more than a share of mauvais quarts d’heures.

What made the performance tolerable was the production and much of singing and playing. The Spanish director Emilio Sagi applies imagination, finesse and charm to the staging, décor and costumes to match by Daniel Blanco and Jésus Ruiz. Ada appears in one scene from a vast rose, another scene has a twenty-five feet high chandelier that must have sent the budget sky-high. Sometimes things get rather camp with male bare-chested fairies wearing diaphanous skirts. There are plenty of girls though and the performance begins and ends in swirling pink. Why the hero Arindal spends two acts in a green frock is not explained. Never mind, it was all good fun and helped to pass the time.

The performance of the evening was by the German singer, Christiana Liber with a voice that was strong, pure, bang in the middle of the note and full of drama. Her mortal lover, Arindal was the American tenor William Joyner, extremely competent but no charm or presence. His sister, Lora, was the Georgina-American Lina Tetruashvili whom we commended at Wexford last Halloween as Miss Bad Girl in Snow Maiden. She’s Miss Good Girl in this and a first rate performer to cherish. Ensemble, chorus and orchestra excellent under Marc-Minkowski, a name we know here from CD’s, good to enjoy his work in the flesh.

Signs and portents? Yes, a phrase here and a modulation there, very occasionally; but on the whole, the music of the future was in the future. But in the story line there were also some familiars; forbidden enquiry, a fairy garden, magic weapons, a touch of redemption and a final transfiguration, all of these were to ring a bell.

I hope that Die Feen (The Fairies) will be performed on rare occasions in future. My motto is; let sleeping fairies lie.

- John Amis