BWW Review: ORESTE, Wilton's Music Hall, 8 November 2016
Glass panels, windows and boxes on stage should always be treated with mistrust. There can be no clearer indication of blood to come - a literal trigger warning, a physical spatter alert. Think of the gorgeous glass house of Benedict Andrews's 2011 The Return of Ulysses for ENO just waiting to be smeared and smudged, or of Gloucester restrained in his glass prison in the RSC's recent Lear just waiting for that moment. We don't have long to wait for the gore in Gerard Jones's Oreste. Barely ten seconds into the overture blood spurts and the audience gasps. It's the first and final shock of a production that unfolds thereafter with tedious and maddening inevitability.
It's wearyingly predictable that for their first foray into the East End the Royal Opera should go down the graffiti-and-gore route. In Jones's reimagining, the island to which Ifigenia is spirited by the Goddess Diana is transformed into a grotty concrete bunker (the work of Jones, again, together with Matt Carter), kingdom of Toante - a self-styled paramilitary dictator in camouflage pants, chest emblazoned with medals. There's a self-consciousness to this dystopian update, a strutting self-satisfaction that seeks to shock rather than to explicate, that dares you to criticise. If you take issue with its awkward direction and uncomfortable stagecraft, if you ask where Handel is in all of this, then you're clearly a reactionary who only wants pretty costumes to go with the pretty baroque music.
Opera Seria, with its repeating da capo arias and formal divide between recitative (moving the action forwards) and aria (reacting emotionally to that action) is a fundamentally an artificial form. There's a reason some directors avoid it altogether. Its spiky dramatic challenges claim a victim in Jones, whose attempt at stylised psychological realism only calls attention to the artificiality of the form.
We know full well a character in the middle of an aria cannot eat a sandwich nor have a bag put Guantanamo-style over their head, so to pretend they can or might is simply to underline the unnatural quality of the drama. These arias are long, and in Wilton's tiny stage space with few props and little to do (dystopias don't tend to offer the usual flower-arranging, bread-making, hair-brushing sort of visual displacement activities) the brilliant cast of Jette Parker Young Artists are left dramatically out to dry.
There are redeeming choices. Jones's handling of Oreste - a problematic figure musically, who lacks the virtuosic dominance we might expect - is thoughtful, a tender portrait of trauma and mental collapse, and a final twist on the opera's conventional happy ending works well.
Why the Royal Opera decided to hire the Southbank Sinfonia and their contemporary instruments to perform a baroque opera at modern pitch rather than some of the many young period specialists is unclear. The result is lumpy cello continuo, arias that consistently take a few bars to settle to tempo and some rather scrappy unison tuning in the violins. Conductor James Hendry does his best, but the results don't come close to the level achieved by the singers.
And here's the rub. For all the visual nonsense going on here, Oreste is still a show worth seeing for the singers alone. Tenor Thomas Atkins (Oreste's sidekick Pilade and his co-star in a rather touching "I am Spartacus" scene) makes light of Handel's stormiest coloratura, framing the opera with two outstanding arias. Jennifer Davis makes a touching Ifigenia, psychologically damaged but vocally so clean an antidote to the filth surrounding her. Gyula Nagy likewise goes bravely to dramatic extremes, making something almost tragic of the B-movie henchman Filtete - no small feat. Simon Shibambu (Toante) impresses with his agile bass-baritone, though his arias on opening night were blighted by a tendency to rush.
As central couple Oreste and Ermione, Angela Simkin and Vlada Borovko have perhaps the toughest job of all, reconciling the contradictions of Handel's music and Jones's direction. Each impressed, though vocally it was Borovko who triumphed thanks to some of the composer's most generous vocal writing.
Ifigenia sports a T-shirt for most of the show; its reads "Love hurts". I'm thinking of having one of my own printed: "Love hurts, but opera doesn't have to". Jones has given us a masochistic fantasy of an Oreste, but it's pain without purpose. If we're in the business of empty gestures, I say bring back the pretty frocks.
Picture Credit: Clive Barda