It’s always good to see a near punch-up at the opera, especially when it’s an opera like Tolomeo. It reminds us of the trouble Handel had with his star singers Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, who sang in the first performance in 1728.
The two rivals were allegedly prone to catfights, and Handel himself threatened to throw Cuzzoni out of the window during rehearsals for Ottone in 1722. But the ugly confrontation between members of the audience at the end of English Touring Opera’s version of Tolomeo (complete with clenched fists and language that was definitely not in Nicola Haym’s libretto) was more about appreciation or lack of it for director James Conway’s modern, minimalist interpretation.
All three acts were set in a claustrophobic wooden box set, emphasising the inability of each of the five characters to escape their surroundings or their emotional entanglements. The starkness was broken by a broken pier jutting into the centre of the stage, which Tolomeo and his separated wife Seleuce sheltered under and clung to for support. The pier also resembled a shipwreck, reminding us of how the ex-king of Egypt, his wife, and brother Alessandro came to Cyprus and into the clutches of the tyrant Araspe and his sister Elisa.
Violent opinions aside, the production offered just the right balance of realism and symbolism. And its simplicity served to intensify the emotions portrayed by the ETO cast. Katherine Manley in was outstanding as the long-suffering Seleuce. Dressed like a rough sleeper from EastEnders, her voice was consistently strong, versatile, and tinged with real feeling. Her opening lament, ‘Fonti amiche’ was genuinely touching, while the eventual meeting between Seleuce and her long lost husband was among the opera’s highlights. In contrast to Seleuce’s tragic but dignified resolve, the character of Tolomeo comes across as a bit of a drip. Melancholy and downtrodden, he is not one of Handel’s heroic figures. But counter-tenor Cint Van Der Linde made the most of the musical magic that Handel lavished on the role (his part was taken by famed castrato Senesino in the original production).
Rachel Nicholls sang the role of Elisa with great gusto. Dressed in a black and white party dress, she did her utmost both physically and vocally to seduce the hapless Tolomeo. Her violent brother Araspe was sung by bass Neil Baker. Dressed like a Balkan Mafioso in a long leather coat, floral shirt and bling neck chain, he relished the aggression and cruelty of the role. His rough wooing of Seleuce, and the torture of Tolomeo were truly brutal. Counter tenor James Laing gave a compelling portrait of Alessandro, the brother tasked with assassinating Tolomeo, but relenting to human, filial compassion. Laing’s light, supple tone was particularly warm and appealing.
Conductor John Andrews led ETO’s instrumental forces with lightness and precision. Occasional sourness in the strings during the slower passages did mar the performance, but this was counterbalanced by some very fine playing on the harpsichord, theorbo, oboe and recorders.
English Touring Opera will perform Tolomeo in Malvern Theatres (29 October), Exeter Northcott (5 November) and Cambridge Arts Theatre (19 November).