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Handel, Alessandro: (Staged Performance) Soloists from the Royal College of Music, London Handel Orchestra. Conductor: Laurence Cummings. Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London. 1. 4. 2009. (GDn)

Director: William Relton

Designer: Cordelia Chisholm

Alessandro: Christopher Lowrey
Rossane: Susanna Hurrell
Lisaura: Sarah-Jane Brandon
Tassile: Ben Williamson
Clito: James Oldfield
Leonato: John McMunn
Cleone: Rosie Aldridge

The Royal College of Music have done their opera students proud with this production of Handel’s Alessandro. The format is a showcase for the student singers with professional period instrument accompaniment (from the London Handel Orchestra) and a conductor and director (Laurence Cummings and William Relton) who have the skill and experience to elevate the project several ranks above the category of ‘student production’.

The work is a rarity, and this is the first
London production of modern times. The neglect is partly explained by the weak libretto, which is formulaic even by 18th century opera standards. The opera was written in 1826 as a vehicle for three Italian superstars who had been lured to the London stage, the castrato Senesino and the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. The librettist, Paulo Rolli casts Senesino as Alexander the Great and the sopranos as rival love interests. The setting is the mythical Indian city of Oxidraca and a subplot about an uprising and a military coup lends the story some epic drama.

Or at least it is intended to. Rolli never takes his classical subject or his military subplot very seriously, so it is entirely fitting that this production does away with both.  Instead we are taken to a British aristocratic setting with public school/Oxbridge overtones, circa 1925. Wars of imperial conquest are substituted by inter-collegiate rugby, with fencing and croquet also put to allegorical service to animate tensions between characters. But the director is conscious of the potential irresponsibility of his metaphor – don’t worry, it’s only a game – so introduces some historical context of his own. Later scenes are played out under fascist banners, setting Alexender’s conquests, even on the rugby field, in an altogether more sinister light.

He needn’t have. Christopher Lowry’s portrayal of Alexander includes every sinister shade the story needs. He has a light countertenor, but of all these young voices, his has the most character. Not so idiosyncratic as to distract from Handel’s elegant melodic contours, but varied enough, and with sufficient timbral interest to provide musical justification for each and every da capo repeat. He is pushed to the limits of his technical ability by Handel’s intricately decorated passage work, as are the other soloists. But there is no shame in that; it is what they were written for.

The overall standard of singing and vocal interpretation is, in fact, exceptionally high, and an impressive stylistic consistency has been achieved between the singers. A complaint could even be raised that the production is founded on excessive co-operation. The work was written to be performed by potentially unwilling collaborators, the composer in the pit struggling to maintain his musical authority over a cast of imported prima donnas, all at each other’s throats and all determined to make the show their own. Singers who are willing to do what they are told create a different on-stage dynamic, but the production is no worse for it.

The RCM fields an excellent chorus, and also finds ideal singers for the minor roles. There is more singing talent here than you could shake a baton at, making the opera’s focus on its three leads somewhat frustrating. The singers in the supporting roles: Ben Williamson, James Oldfield, John McMunn and Rosie Aldridge shine in the one or two arias each is allotted. Williamson is cast in the difficult position of countertenor number two. He plays Tassile, the Hamid Karzai of the piece, a leader of the conquered natives trying to secure a position for himself within the imperial hierarchy. Some of the lower notes of his first act aria were lost, and it is unusual to hear a countertenor struggling for the low notes, but a convincing performance nonetheless. Bass is in short supply in this opera, but James Oldfield redresses the balance admirably as Clito, the army captain whose brief rebellion forms basis of the opera's curiously inconsequential subplot.

But the majority of the solo work is divided between the two leading sopranos, Susanna Hurrell as Rossane and Sarah-Jane Brandon as Lisaura. These, too, are excellent casting decisions, the style and technique of each singer ideally suited to their respective roles. The last act culminates in a battle-of-the-divas sing off with arias alternating between the two sopranos. Composer and librettist conspire in forcing us to pick a winner. For this production it is no cop out to declare the result a dead heat.

Gavin Dixon

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