Imeneo is one of Handel’s less well known operas; perhaps deservedly so. The plot and the libretto are weak and the music pretty variable. Charles Jennens, the librettist for Messiah, descibed it as “the worst of all Handel’s compositions”. It does have the merit of being short. Most recent recordings come in around two hours and this UoT Opera production, rearranged and cut by Tim Albery, comes in at 100 minutes spread over two acts.
The plot concerns a young lady, Rosmene, who has been abducted by pirates. She is rescued by the hero, Imeneo, who happened to be on board the pirate ship dressed as a woman to stalk Rosmene! He requests her as his reward. Thus, she is forced to choose between him and her lover Tirinto; Duty vs Love etc. There are two other characters; Argenio, apparently the head of the family and his daughter Clomiri, who was abducted with Rosmene and is in love with Imeneo. Argenio is a cipher who just makes vague pronouncements and Imeneo is a self satisfied dork with the psychological complexity of a plank. Tirinto moons around pathetically. Eventually, of course, this being the 18th century, Rosmene chooses Duty and Imeneo and everyone gets on with their desperate, miserable lives.
Musically it’s largely a succession of da capo arias with one rather nice duet, a trio and some brief interventions by the chorus. A great deal of it is rather slow paced, especially the first half hour. I think that it could be a worthwhile piece with a really interesting production and singers who could make the da capo arias exciting. UoT’s current production does pretty well on the first bit but, perhaps inevitably for a student production, can’t really deliver on the second.
Tim Albery’s production is interesting. It’s staged backstage at the MacMillan theatre with the audience sitting on stage and the action taking place in the backstage area. The aesthetic is eclectic modern opera. Some visual clues say 1950s but when we first meet Clomiri she’s wearing flowered leggings! There’s a whole lot of climbing over mantel pieces, up gantries and over rather precariously placed furniture. When Rosmene has to make her big decision she dresses herself as Rhadamante, king of the underworld, before invoking him to inspire her choice. It’s which Hell shall I choose! So lots of interesting things to look at backed up by some very decent acting across the board.
Musically it’s more problematic. The biggest problem is what to do with the many da capo arias. I’ll be honest I can only really enjoy these when the singer is doing something, preferably something spectacular, with the repeat. That doesn’t happen very often in a student performance and it didn’t last night. That aside, the singing was OK to very good. The standout was Sarah Amelard as Rosmene. She had enough oomph, was accurate and characterised well. Rebecca Apps as Clomiri had less to do but was equally adept. Joel Allison as Imeneo started a bit slowly with some pitch and breath control issues but once he got going he produced a suitably stentorian, if unsubtle, sound. That’s not a criticism. His character would not recognize subtlety if he tripped over it. Micah Schroeder sang Argenio well enough but he’s such a dull character… Then there was Camille Rogers’ Tirinto. It’s a castrato role of course and needs to be able to match the baritone in the love triangle for power and beat him for flexibility. It’s not really reasonable to expect that in a student level mezzo though, right now in Toronto, comparisons are bound to be made. She was OK though a bit light on volume and with a tendency to fade toward the end of lines. It might have mattered less in a more interesting work. Daniel Taylor and Adrian Butterfield directed a suitably sized orchestra set off to the side of the action. It was fine, but again so much of the music is deadly dull and repetitive.
I can understand why this piece was chosen for a student performance and the production itself and the acting are beyond what one often gets for such things. The trouble is the music and its execution. To really bring it to life would require more than one can reasonably expect from young singers.
There are two more performances. The cast reviewed here perform again tonight with an alternate cast on Sunday afternoon.
Photo credits: Richard Lu.
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