Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music
Serse – Jake ArdittiArsamene – Tai Oney
Amastre – Lucinda Stuart-Grant
Ariodate – Jon Stainsby
Romilda – Alice Privett
Atalanta – Abbi Temple
Elviro – Matthew Durkan
Chorus – Chiara Vinci, Laurence Painter
Jenny Miller (director)Faye Bradley (designs)
Dan Saggars, Andy Bird (lighting)
Rebecca Hanbury (assistant director)
Michael Spenceley (choreography)
Longborough Young Artists Orchestra
Jeremy Silver (conductor)
What an excellent idea for the Longborough Festival to bring its Young Artist Production to London for a performance at the Royal College of Music! Yes, I know, a Londoner would say that, but like it or not, and I am sure we can all agree that centralisation in a not-remotely-central city is a curse upon all manner of activity in this country, London is the centre of English operatic life and metropolitan exposure can only help all concerned. (No one believes more strongly than I that the Royal Opera and ENO should tour, and to hell with the Arts Council’s absurd geographical demarcations! After its behaviour with respect to ENO alone, disbandment would, frankly, be too kind a fate for that organisation, presently headed by a friend of Jeremy ‘Hunt’, Peter Bazalgette, of Big Brother fame.) London performances are perhaps especially important in the case of young singers, all of whom performed creditably, and in most cases, considerably more than that. A taste of Longborough, especially for those of us without cars, is of course more than welcome at this end too. Perhaps we might even hope for more in the future? Would it not be wonderful, if the Proms were to invite the Festival next year, perhaps for Tannhäuser or Jenůfa?
A Handel opera, in any case, made for an eminently sensible choice in the present situation. Focused on singers, with a small (too small?) orchestra, Serse fared well in musical terms, save for the somewhat scrawny playing of the strings. I think they were modern instruments, but it was not easy to tell, testament to the near-total victory of ‘period’ imperialism. Apart from that, Jeremy Silver directed (from the harpsichord) a mostly sensitive performance, tempi appropriate, with little of the absurd rushing (with occasional, equally absurd grinding to a halt) that characterises the Handelian exhibitionism of our allegedly ‘authenticke’ times. For a full, noble orchestral sound, we must return to first-choice Rafael Kubelík in Munich (in German, with a tenor Xerxes, no less than Fritz Wunderlich!) or, in an Italian-language performance, Brian Priestman (with Maureen Forrester) in Vienna.
But as I said, the singing was really the thing. Jake Arditti offered a bravura yet eminently sensitive assumption of the title role: as well acted, with proud petulance and wounded humanity, as it was heroically sung. For those sceptics who (still) doubt the ability of the counter-tenor voice to portray the requisite range of emotions, the performances of Arditti and Tai Oney as Arsamene would surely have proved a useful corrective. Oney’s beautifully-sung performance pulled off without any difficulty the task of sufficient difference in timbre and character, without a hint of the hootiness which, in days gone by, infected far too many such performances. Alice Privett threw herself into the role of Romilda, passing with flying colours: a properly high dramatic performance. If they were my pick of the cast, that is probably as much a reflection of the opportunities their roles offer as anything else. I should certainly not be able to offer you a weak link, nor should I wish to. Longborough’s programme clearly engenders a real sense of company, something that cannot be feigned.
My principal reservation concerned Jenny Miller’s production. It was very pink, which may or may not be one’s taste. I learned afterwards, upon reading the programme, that it had been set in a ‘contemporary setting, more immediately familiar and neutral – a nightclub or hotel bar’. I could then see that it had been, but if I am honest, whether through stupidity or inattention on my part, or a lack of clarity on the director’s, I had not realised at the time. Initially, my thought was that we were amongst Mafiosi, but then it all turned surprisingly camp – and not a little silly. Anyway, we were supposed to have asked whether it was ‘Xerxes’s bar … [whether] he owns a string of them, planning global expansion,’ and so on. By ‘shedding many of the specifically period references, we can concentrate on the comedy of the lessons in love being handed out’. Perhaps; I certainly hold no brief for confining a work to its period, although some of the satire here might have worked better, had we experienced more of a dialogue between ‘period’ and ‘contemporary’. (Or perhaps I am too content with Nicholas Hytner’s seemingly evergreen ENO production, which can be caught on DVD with Charles Mackerras and Ann Murray.) I think Miller is probably right to say, with respect to the work itself, that ‘satire about the exercise of unlimited power … is not the main theme of the power’. However, I cannot help but wonder whether a more absorbing theatrical experience might be the outcome of a production that treated it as if it were. The cast did its best to make us care about the characters, but there is a limit to what can be done in that respect within the confines of a Handel opera seria. Besides, if the ‘period references’ can be rejected, cannot a too rigid conception of ‘intention’? Much of the audience seemed, however, greatly to enjoy the sometimes outlandish costumes and antics of the entertainment, and what I say immediately above should be considered as musing rather than prescription. I look forward to Longborough’s next visit to the capital.