When an opera seria has more than six characters, its plot is invariably hard to parse. Handel’s late Faramondo has eight, which may account for its status as a rarity. Yet in the theatre, the characters’ emotional ties transcend the tangled storylines to display unanticipated tautness. That is the lesson of Paul Curran’s insightful, if sometimes overly clever, production for the International Handel Festival in Göttingen, the German university town where the modern revival of the composer’s operas began in the 1920s.
Handel’s only opera with a libretto by the Arcadian poet Apostolo Zeno deals with warring powers from France’s legendary history. Curran renders them as a casino entrepreneur, Gustavo, and two organised-crime factions, which dress in military garb and relentlessly brandish guns. Gustavo requires his family and other dependents to swear to avenge the murder of his supposed son by Faramondo, which they do in a formal but dreary gaming room (sets and costumes by Gary McCann), sealing their vows with their own blood.
The oath poses problems for Gustavo’s daughter, Rosimonda, when she falls in love with Faramondo (and he with her) and finds herself duty-bound to stifle growing affection. For nearly two acts Handel prolongs this tense situation, until a lighthearted duet brings exquisite relief and Rosimonda reaches for Faramondo’s hand. Earlier, Curran emphasises the stridency of a confrontation, the better to point up the gorgeous aria that follows, in which Faramondo sings that, having beheld Rosimonda’s eyes, he is prepared to die happily.
The gifted young mezzo-soprano Emily Fons extracts all its poignancy and demonstrates ample vocal muscle in Faramondo’s more heroic utterances. Anna Starushkevych affectingly projects Rosimonda’s dilemma. In a symmetrical arrangement, Rosimonda’s brother, Adolfo, and Faramondo’s sister, Clotilde, love each other but have problems of their own, which are skilfully confronted by Maarten Engeltjes, a countertenor, and, especially, Anna Devlin, a soprano who shines in some sizzling arias, including one in which she bites into a take-away pizza before the final vocal section. Another countertenor, Christopher Lowrey, as the villainous Gernando, displays a dazzling technique when not taking sniffs from a stash of Rosimonda’s panties; Njål Sparbo is a solid Gustavo.
Laurence Cummings, in his third year as the festival’s artistic director, has the score superbly judged, taking some bravura arias at bracing tempos without causing vocal distress. He leads the crack FestspielOrchester Göttingen established by his predecessor, Nicholas McGegan. It has never sounded better.