In a pre-concert talk, conductor Christopher Hogwood explained how the popular view that by 1740 Handel’s operas were failing, forcing him to reinvent himself through the oratorio, was slightly misleading. Both art forms actually enjoyed a substantial period of overlap, and one of the main reasons why the composer ultimately chose to embrace the oratorio was simply that it proved the better platform from which to present the religious subject matters he wished to explore.
Appreciating that Imeneo, the composer’s penultimate opera of 1740, sits within this period of transition (at least six oratorios had already enjoyed London premières) is to understand the influence of the oratorio upon it, not least in its inclusion of a chorus that seldom appeared in his operas. As a work, it is relatively small-scale, lasting just two and a half hours (including interval) with the compact orchestra featuring no percussion or brass, and very little wind.
The entire story revolves around Rosmene trying to decide between Imeneo, the hero who rescued her from pirates, and Tirinto, the man she truly loves. In choosing the former, she places reason above her own feelings, which the eighteenth century aristocracy would have appreciated since strategic marriages were still the norm, and putting duty before happiness was seen as virtuous. This does not, however, prevent the plot from being unique amongst Handel’s operas, since it represents the only time that the bass beats the castrato to the girl!
The star of the evening was the Academy of Ancient Music itself. Anyone who has ever thought that Handel opera is repetitive and formulaic should really hear Christopher Hogwood in action. He sculpted the music to perfection, making it sing in its own right, and the output felt ‘symphonic’ in the sense that the subtle hues and rhythmic variations he elicited revealed better than ever the opera’s range of textures and overarching form.
Against this, the soloists felt a little subdued. They often struggled to project in the Barbican hall’s relatively large space, although this problem applied to some singers more than others and the overall quality of the output remained good. As Rosmene, Rebecca Bottone’s voice was sweet, elegant and precise, while as Clomiri Lucy Crowe’s sound was spiritual and fluid. Renata Pokupić, replacing David Daniels as Tirinto, could sometimes hardly be heard in her lower register, but elsewhere her resonant voice shone through and visually she was an engaging performer.
Baritone Stephan Loges as Argenio had an aesthetically pleasing voice, but it was a little too soft at times and tuning was not always at a premium. In the title role Vittorio Prato similarly revealed the quality of the grain in his bass, but the sound sometimes felt a little lacklustre and unassertive. Nevertheless, with ultimately good solo performances combined with an orchestra playing at an exceptionally high standard, the result was a truly superb night of Handel.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on 29 May and will be available on BBC iPlayer for a week.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.