Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Alessandro @ Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

30 March - 2 April 2009

The London Handel Festival scores yet another hit with this first modern revival of an opera which was a huge success when first performed but is virtually ignored today. Formed precisely ‘for carrying on Operas,’ London’s Royal Academy was the setting for some of Handel’s greatest successes.

These included Alessandro, which he wrote not only to display the dazzling virtuosity of his three ‘stars,’ the castrato Senesino and the sopranos Cuzzoni and Bordoni, but to exploit the passionate rivalry of the women, a rivalry which famously erupted into unseemly behaviour both on and off stage.

No catfights on this occasion, however, with the parts of the warring divas taken by Susanna Hurrell (Rosanne) and Sarah-Jane Brandon (Lisaure), both of whom managed to arouse and sustain our interest in their quest for the love of the supposedly heroic but actually somewhat degenerate and aimless Alessandro (Christopher Lowrey).

The whole thing is really a collection of wonderful whinges, set to some of Handel’s most alluring music. Whilst the hero’s arias are mostly fine examples of the genre, they lack the finesse of those inspired by the sopranos surely Lisaure’s ‘Quanto dolce’ and ‘Tiranna passion’ and Rosanne’s ‘Aure, fonti’ and ‘Brilla nell’ alma’ are amongst the greatest pieces in the baroque repertoire, and both singers here did them proud.

Christopher Lowrey looks about fifteen, but he transcended this ‘disadvantage’ to present a suitably bombastic hero, and he was well supported by the lyrical Tassile of Ben Williamson, the engagingly bluff Clito of James Oldfield and the stalwart Cleon of Rosie Aldridge. The chorus sang enthusiastically whether they were representing loyalists or rebels, and the London Handel Orchestra played with vigour under the ever-sprightly direction of Laurence Cummings.

William Relton’s production was great fun set in a kind of ageless Oxbridge cross between a meeting of the Bullingdon Club and a Varsity Rugger match, the costumes were vaguely ‘between the wars’ and the attitudes suitably gung-ho.

Handelians who have loved the ENO productions of Xerxes and Semele would have been very much at home, with influences from both prevalent, especially in the evening-dressed partygoers and the flower-lopping scene. No matter Paul Need’s evocative lighting and Cordelia Chisholm’s elegant designs spoke for themselves, and the production as a whole conveyed the spirit of the work without strain.

It’s not easy to stage a piece written for the three greatest singers of their time, still less to do it with young singers, and the singing here was a tribute to the RCM. Sarah-Jane Brandon has a genuinely Handelian voice, sweet yet incisive, and I am sure we will hear a great deal more from this post-graduate student: Quantz’ description of her great predecessor Cuzzoni is not out of place here ‘Her ornamentation did not seem to be artificial with its tenderness she won the hearts of her listeners.’

Susanna Hurrell also studies at the RCM, and the characterization by Quantz of Bordoni as a singer with ‘a beautiful and very polished trillo‘ might equally apply to her. A feast for lovers of Handel singing, with just two further performances, on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd.

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