Handel’s Faramondo was not a major hit when it premiered in 1738, lasting for eight performances and never being revived. It did not receive a modern production until 1976 and, although it has enjoyed a few more in recent years, it remains a work with which many people will not be acquainted. One of the joys, however, of the London Handel Festival, and the Royal College of Music production that forms a part of it, is that it gives audiences the opportunity to hear these relatively neglected, and yet frequently worthwhile pieces.
The opera works from a 1698 libretto by Apostolo Zeno originally written for Carlo Francesco Pollarolo’s Il Faramondo, and its plot is one of the more convoluted to be found in a Handel piece. Set in the fifth century, it begins after Faramondo, King of the Franks, has killed the son of Gustavo, King of the Cimbrians, in battle. This has made Gustavo particularly opposed to his other son, Adolfo, falling in love with Faramondo’s sister Clotilde, leading Adolfo to break with his father. At the same time, Faramando has fallen in love with Gustavo’s daughter Rosimonda, but so too has Gernando, King of the Suebi, with whom Faramondo had allied in order to defeat Gustavo. More complications ensue as Gernando tries to form an alliance with Gustavo in an attempt to defeat Faramondo and hence his rival for Rosimonda. Then it transpires that Faramondo never killed Gustavo’s son because Cimbrian General Teobaldo had substituted his own for the King’s in an attempt to further his own genetic ambitions.
In the end, Adolfo and Clotilde are joined, as are Rosimonda and Faramondo as the latter makes peace with Gustavo. In fact, one would be inclined to suggest that this was a traditional story of courage, virtue and honour triumphing over evil, scheming and adversity were it not that William Relton’s highly effective production implies exactly the opposite. He sets the action in the fifties or sixties with Gustavo’s people as the mods, Faramando’s as the rockers and Gernando’s as the skinheads. This helps us to keep tabs on who is who in the complicated story as each group wears very distinct clothes, but other purposes are also served as the groups are grounded in quite a specific context. Gustavo owns a club, complete with red velvety curtains, that bears his name, and when we see his followers hanging out there it is clear he is a gang leader and that this club serves as his ‘headquarters’. Rosimonda is not only his daughter but, judging from her dressing room, clothes and posters, a star performer at the club, showing how Gustavo uses her as a propaganda tool to promote his own power.
The staging is generally dynamic and entertaining. For example, Clotilde’s arias tend to be accompanied by her drinking whatever alcohol is available at the time. One particularly amusing, and brilliantly executed, aria sees Harriet Eyley swigging on a bottle of gin in the nightclub. As she does so, she grabs every girl who happens to be passing on their way to the toilet as if they were her best friend, before running there herself because she has drunk too much. In a parallel, during Faramondo’s aria his gang crack open bottles of beer.
Relton is always careful, however, not to overdo things. The aria in which Adolfo sings that he is happy to die at his father’s hand is intensely moving on its own, and Relton gives space for Josephine Goddard to focus on expressing the character’s emotions as the others quietly react to what they hear. At, or towards, the end of arias a curtain often falls, which serves two purposes. First, it enables the next scene change to take place behind it so that as soon as the aria is finished the curtain can rise on the next piece of action. Second, it ensures that at the end of arias we can focus specifically on the person who is expressing their emotions.
The point of all this is clear. Each side believes that it is noble, virtuous and has a right to rule, and that its enemy is nothing more than evil low life. However, if we were to see mods and rockers fighting we would likely judge them to be both as bad as each other, and so it is with these warring tribes who are no better than gangs. If the point is made well throughout the evening it is capped in the Finale when the superficially happy dance is not much of a mask for what is really going on.
The cast is exceptionally strong to the point that your favourite principal is always the one who is singing at the time. Ida Ränzlöv reveals an intriguing mezzo-soprano as Faramondo, Harriet Eyley displays a beguiling soprano as Clotilde, and Kieran Rayner a strong and secure baritone as Gustavo. Beth Moxon displays a well developed mezzo-soprano as Rosimonda and Josephine Goddard a beautiful soprano as Adolfo, while Timothy Morgan as Gernando, Harry Thatcher as Teobaldo and Lauren Morris as Childerico all play their parts to the full. The playing of the London Handel Orchestra, conducted by Laurence Cummings, is very fine indeed and contributes greatly to the undeniable strength of the evening.
Two casts perform over the run. Cast A (described above) sings on 20 and 23 March, and cast B on 21 and 25 March.
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