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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Arminio, Opera in Three Acts
Max Emanuel Cencic (Arminio), Gaia Petrone (Ramise), Lauren Snouffer (Tusnelda), Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk (Sigismondo), Owen Willetts (Tullio), Pavel Kudinov (Segeste), Juan Sancho (Varo)
Armonia Atenea/George Petrou
Max Emanuel Cencic (stage director)
rec. live, 24 February - 1 March 2017, International Handel Festival, Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, Germany
Sound: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1; Picture: NTSC, 16:9, All Regions
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Korean, Japanese; subtitles bonus: English, Japanese; booklet: English, German, French C MAJOR 744504 Blu-ray [168 mins]
Arminio is one of Handel’s later operas, first given at Covent Garden in 1737. It was written in haste, largely failed with the public, and has had a bad press almost ever since. E. J. Dent in 1954 wrote of “deplorable feebleness… the music is for the most part unworthy of Handel, and can only be passed over in silence”. Winton Dean’s second volume in his monumental study of all Handel’s operas (Boydell 2006) is especially critical of the drama: “This libretto, as Handel set it, might almost be a send-up of the heroic opera seria convention. The action proceeds in a series of ill-motivated jerks, with particularly ludicrous results in Act III.” He says of the music: “Much of the score is reminiscent of things he had said better elsewhere.” But there has been a reassessment in recent years, beginning with Alan Curtis’s recording made in 2000 for Virgin Classics. Edward Blakeman in his 2009 Faber Pocket Guide to Handel suggests that it “really does have fine things in it”, and has no trouble listing those fine things. The rehabilitation of the work, if that is what we are seeing, continued with this production by Max Emanuel Cencic at the International Handel Festival in Karlsruhe; it gave rise to a CD in 2016 and now to this film.
The plot draws upon Tacitus’s account of the defeat by the German prince Arminius of the Roman legions and the death of their general, Quintilius Varus. There are the usual added complications dealing with love between characters across this divide, and the conflict between loyalties central to so many Baroque operas. This production, designed by Helmut Stürmer and directed by Cencic (who of course also sings the lead), sets it at the time of the French Revolution. Armino’s court is costumed as in the Ancien Régime, and the Romans are dressed as soldiers of the revolutionary army. Arminio enters in chains near the start of Act II to a revolutionary tribunal, complete with a series of heads on spikes. The allusion is perhaps to Robespierre’s notorious Committee for Public Safety, and to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as Arminio also fails in an attempt to flee, as did the Bourbon monarch in 1791. But of course this is opera seria, and the titular hero eventually prevails rather than go to the guillotine – though he is led to one at the opening of Act III. There is a single set, with two concentric revolves to provide different locales easily and convincingly. All this is very effective, as it largely serves the drama rather than imposing an alien concept upon it.
But of course modern accounts of Baroque opera, even more than those of opera at other periods, are all about vocal skill, and this performance is excellently sung. Cencic is a phenomenon. His acting and singing give as complete an account of the role of Arminio as can be imagined. His two successive arias near the start of Act II show first his control of tone and line in Duri lacci, then his flexibility in the vocal bravura of Si, cadrò, ma sorgerà. His consort Tusnelda is sung by the impressive Lauren Snouffer. Her pure soprano is delightful, and her swifter passages are tight in rhythm as well as spot-on in intonation. Juan Sancho sings the role of Roman general Varo, as he did on that 2016 CD version, and acts well – no hammily villainous snarling and spitting here. His tenor sound is more noble than villainous in fact, apart from a momentary hint of strain at the climax of his first aria (he has only two). The whole cast is almost on the same high level, with the agreeable counter-tenor of Owen Willetts making the most of Tullio’s two arias. George Petrou’s conducting draws sensitive and sprightly playing from his excellent band Armonia Atenea, especially the strings that monopolise the scoring of most arias – though there is also a fine oboe for Sigismondo’s Act II aria. Petrou’s tempi are never extreme in either direction, but support the singers well throughout.
I found the music engaging, better than some earlier critics claimed, and at times remarkable for a work written in about a month. It is not Alcina or Giulio Cesare, but Handel – occasionally here on autopilot – is rarely dull or merely formulaic for very long. The strictures against the libretto do have some substance, alas, not least as the characters seem incapable of killing themselves or each other at various points when apparently intent on doing so. But this production is generally intelligent enough to treat the characters seriously, avoid unintentional humour, and hold one’s sympathy throughout. It is well-filmed, especially given the prevailing gloom of the stage lighting, and the Blu-ray image – including the sound image – is up to the standard of the high-resolution format. There are no extras except trailers (which I think must be included in that listed timing of 168 minutes). I must note one tiresome if not ruinous limitation. There is no menu or track listing that I could find on the disc (just one in the booklet), not even an access point for the start of each act. So you have to watch it right through, or leap forward sequentially through the tracks to find any one scene. Otherwise this is as far as I am aware the only filmed Arminio available, but even so it is hard to imagine that a better one will come along any time soon.