It is one of the special merits of the London Handel Festival that we get to hear corners of the composer’s huge output that “regular” promoters are reluctant to explore. This year’s centrepiece is Arianna in Creta, an opera well praised at its 1734 premiere but the target of sniffy comments ever since. Selina Cadell’s production, simply designed by Simon Bejer, vivaciously conducted by Laurence Cummings and creditably sung by a cast of postgraduate singers, provided a solid basis on which to make an informed judgment.
It doesn’t take long in this three-and-a-quarter hour evening – just one interval – to discover why Arianna is one of the more neglected operas in the Handel canon. Despite several outstanding moments, it lacks the consistency of Ariodante and Alcina, which it immediately preceded. The libretto – a tale of tangled but triumphant love, as Theseus slays the Minotaur – is short on emotional depth and poetry. But it gave Carestini and Scalzi – the castratos hired by Handel when Senesino deserted the composer’s company for the Opera of the Nobility – a splendid vehicle with which to display their vocal prowess to the London public.
The heroic arias allotted to Teseo, Carestini’s part, must be among the most brilliant Handel ever composed: he would surely have called the opera Teseo if he hadn’t already written one by that name. As for Alcestes, Scalzi’s role, “Son qual stanco pellegrino” is the evening’s emotional centre.
It is heart-warming to hear young professionals engaging so successfully with Handel’s musical demands. Angela Simkin tackled Teseo’s vocal flights fearlessly, with a pleasingly mellow mezzo timbre. Hannah Sandison’s Alcestes had exemplary command of the words. The most personable voices were those of Filipa van Eck’s Arianna – a beautifully focused soprano and an eye-catching presence – and Maria Ostroukhova’s Carilda, whose old-fashioned contralto was interesting enough to overcome her dull delivery. Morgan Pearse was the functional Minos, Rose Setten a plucky Tauride. All need acting lessons – save for Elliott Ross’s impish (non-singing) Cupid.
A more sophisticated staging might have papered over the opera’s cracks, but despite the infectious advocacy of Cummings and his orchestra, Arianna looks destined to return to its slumbers.