Not seen at Covent Garden since its premiere in 1737, Handel’s tale of a family and country at war is perplexing, but provides a vehicle for a set of exceptional young singers to shine.
Good Lord! Handel’s operas are renowned for their baffling plots – some more so than others – but Arminio, a duplicitous tale of two countries, Germania and Italy, at war takes some beating. It involves espionage, a convoluted family tree that would put Succession to shame, treachery, unrequited love, yet somehow, miraculously, manages to resolve this web of deception in the closing bars. Or does it?
Premiered on this site in 1737, Arminio seems to have vanished, and was here receiving its first set of performances since then. If a work lies neglected for over 280 years there’s usually a reason why. As mentioned above, not only is the plot one of his more far-fetched, but the music isn’t top drawer Handel either. For much of the first act he seems to have been on autopilot. The arias are pleasant enough, but there’s nothing memorable or anything to really pull on the heart strings.
Still, you have to salute a company that’s prepared to revisit and revalue the works he wrote for the Covent Garden stage. While not in the same league as Agrippina, Theodora, Alcina or Ariodante (we shall see very shortly whether the Covid postponed staging of this masterpiece has been rescheduled into the 2023/24 season), it provided the perfect vehicle for the exceptionally talented Jette Parker Artists to sink their teeth into.
“It involves espionage, a convoluted family tree that would put Succession to shame, treachery, unrequited love…”
Director Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol and designer Noemi Daboczi have taken their cue from a range of influences including film noir and political thrillers. Set in the modern day, the way it depicts the effect war has on individuals, family and relationships is unflinching. There’s a fluidity to the action as well, which lends a cinematic scope to the proceedings. The acting areas, a bureaucratic office on the left, a bedroom to the right are divided by sets of curtains, that seamlessly swish open and closed. It’s all expertly done, and both director and designer make full use of the depth of the Linbury Theatre stage to telling effect.
The performances are exceptionally assured – on the evidence of this they’re all on course for distinguished operatic careers. In the title role Gabrielė Kupšytė produced acres of ravishing singing throughout the evening, her warm, agile mezzo voice equally at home in the florid passages as the more introspective ones. Handel saves the best arias for his titular hero, with Kupšytė rising to the challenges of ‘Duri lacci’ and ‘Vado, vado a morir’ admirably.
Kamilla Dunstan (Ramise) and Isabelle Peters (Sigismondo) both possess bright, articulate voices and had no trouble traversing all the roulades and scales Handel throws at them. They were also entirely credible dramatically as well – no mean feat under the circumstances. As Arminio’s wife Tusnelda, Sarah Dufresne possesses a glorious, thrilling soprano voice, infused with colour, and supported by a rock solid technique. Her bravura singing was astonishingly assured and a delight from start to finish. Handel doesn’t give the men much to do, compared to the women, but tenor Michael Gibson certainly made his mark in the role of the general, Varo. He was superb as the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia last year, and here used his ardent, effortlessly produced tenor voice to breathtaking effect. Josef Jeongmeen Ahn was an authoritative presence as Segeste, while Kamohelo Tsotetsi made his presence felt as Tullio.
In the pit André Callegaro’s conducting was pitch-perfect. He led a bracing account of the score, the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company responding with exhilarating playing throughout. While Arminio may not be one of Handel’s finest works for the stage, its exhumation was worthwhile as it provided a backdrop for some exceptional music making, and a chance to hear the stars of the future.
• Details of future performances can be found here.