April 1, 2016

Generous rivals? Handel's Elpidia unearthed by Opera Settecento

The London Handel Festival has been trundling along for 39 years now, presenting an annual feast for lovers of the great 18th-century composer and his contemporaries. In collaboration with Opera Settecento, they put on Handel's first pasticcio, Elpidia, created for the King's Theatre, Haymarket in 1725 and never again seen until this year's festival. The pasticcio form is essentially a musical smörgåsbord: a selection of arias ripped from existing operas by other composers assembled on a recitative tablecloth provided by the 'composer'. In London, it provided aficionados the opportunity to hear the latest big hits from the continent, and for the great singers either to save their memories by trotting out pieces they had just learnt, or to roll out favourite bravura arias that showcased their vocal talents.

The Cast .  Photograph: Robert Workman

The CastPhotograph: Robert Workman

As the excellent programme notes made clear, very little of Elpidia's music is by Handel; the great majority of the arias are drawn from works by Leonardo Vinci, supplemented with numbers by lesser composers such as Orlandini, Giacomelli and several splendid baritone arias by Lotti. The plot is typical of the time. Set in the remains of the Western Roman Empire, during Emperor Justinian's campaign to retake Italy in the mid 6th century, it revolves around the standard rivalry for the hand of Elpidia between the two commanders Ormonte and Olindo. To complicate matters, Vitiges, King of the Ostrogoths, with whom the Romans are at war, is also in love with her, and after his daughter Rosmilda is captured by Ormonte, he seizes Elpidia. Olindus takes Vitiges by surprise, but surrenders himself when Vitiges holds a knife to Elpidia's throat, earning her love in the process. Subsequently, Ormonte rescues them both, demands that Olindus yield Elpidia to him and is suspected of plotting against supreme commander Belisario. The opera is resolved when Ormonte is cleared and Belisario grants him Rosmilda's hand, clearing the path for Olindus and Elpidia. The plot has substantial weaknesses – narrative gaps, an excessive number of captures, and a questionable understanding of human motive, but this is nothing particularly rare to the time.

What it does contain is some ravishing music. Singing Elpidia, soprano Erica Eloff was on terrific form, entirely at ease with the complex demands of the part and showing a real bite in her high notes that made her quite thrilling. Her Act II aria “Dolce orror” was superbly done, utterly secure in intonation and coloured with exquisite melancholy. Her higher register is entirely secure with plenty of force underlying it and her trills were gripping; she tossed off countless high notes with great panache. Her diction was unclear towards the beginning, but improved markedly as the performance developed. Countertenor Rupert Enticknap, singing Olindus, showed a very versatile instrument of noticeable warmth, and easily dispatched the formidable coloratura, with a particularly fine display of vocal pyrotechnics in his aria “Di pur ch'io sono ingrate”. A dramatic approach to phrasing, a pleasant vibrato, and obvious chemistry with Eloff made his performance compelling. For sheer pathos, his 'break-up' aria “Parto bel ido mio” was remarkable (interesting to note that the composer for this cannot be attributed).

As Vitiges, tenor Rupert Charlesworth took a little time to warm up, but showed a sweet voice with careful phrasing and clear attention to the text, most noticeably on the colouring of his aria “Al mio Tesoro”. The nobility he brought, combined with real force to his top in “Vanne e spera”, his sole moment in Act III, was a fine end to his performance. I was not entirely convinced by countertenor Joe Bolger as Ormonte; his voice lacked the power to make a real impression and verged at times on the slightly flat. The character is hardly the most appealing, but Bolger seemed to lack inspiration and the affinity with Ormonte to really do the role justice. Belisario isn't given much to do – he is spared the blinding that Donizetti imposed on him – but Chris Jacklin gave a majestic performance with a sonorous baritone in keeping with the gravity of the role. Maria Ostroukhova as Rosmilda, who perhaps suffers most from the plot deficiencies, managed to bring real feeling to the character and displayed a weighty mezzo, and clearly knows how to sustain a line. Her aria “Gia sente il Core” was illogically, but indisputably moving.

Under the lively baton of Leo Duarte, the Opera Settecento Orchestra gave a laudable performance; a plush rich sound was on show throughout and they were a pleasure to hear. Duarte's choice of tempi kept things moving and he clearly knew the score well, as for that matter, did all the performers. Opera Settecento didn’t convince me that Elpidia should have regular outings, but they made sure it was worth hearing that evening.  

Dominic Lowe