Imeneo at Göttingen Back

The production: Festspiel Orchester Göttingen (FOG), conducted from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings with historically informed staging and choreography by the Belgian specialist Sigrid T’Hooft, set and costumes by Stephan Dietrich and lighting by Ralf Sternberg, dance group Corpo Barocco, vocal soloists Anna Dennis, Stefanie True, James Laing, William Berger and Matthew Brook and the Imeneo chorus. The score used for this production was the Bärenreiter, edited by Donald Burrows. The pre-concert lecture in English that we heard was given by Dr. Amanda Babington. We saw the performances on May 12th and 14th.

Imeneo was Handel’s penultimate opera. It was first performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, November 22nd 1740. The text of Imeneo was derived from a two-part libretto by Silvio Stampiglia for a ‘Componimento Dramatico’ produced in connection with wedding celebrations at Naples in 1723 and set to music by Nicola Porpora. To quote John H. Roberts, the manuscript of Imeneo, composed between 1738 and 1740, is:

…Evidently incomplete, its leaves out of order, it abounds in alternative settings, revisions, cancellations, directions for transposition and instructions to move numbers from one scene to another. (Händel-Jahrbuch, 2001.)

Obviously this means that anybody planning a performance has a lot of leeway.

Since attending Amadigi in 2012, we have had to wait years for another historically informed production, as those making the decisions in Göttingen don’t seem to understand that it is precisely these productions that have made the Göttingen Handel Festival so special. In the meantime, other cities have also discovered that it is worthwhile to make the music and the staging agree stylistically, but informed productions remain few and far between and there is still a long way to go. Like early music half a century ago, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music theatre has to cultivate its own public who understand the conventions and can then delight in the seamless meshing of every aspect of the performance. It would therefore be helpful if festivals included lectures on baroque basics.

At first sight, Imeneo seems the wrong choice for winning over an audience: the only stage directions extant, in the surviving printed libretto (1742), call for only one set, which remains in place and has no moving parts. The text offers no clue as to the visual aspects of baroque theatre in all its glory: no transformation scenes, no gods or other supernatural beings descending from the heavens in their machines, no wild sea with ships in distress or atmospheric effects such as thunder and lightning.

Some musicologists writing about this opera offer Handel’s unhappy state of mind when writing Imeneo and his final opera Deidamia as an explanation for the simple scenery and lack of spectacular effects, after the preceding group of operas, which included Serse and Ariodante. However, the visual elements of each opera are connected with their respective theatres: the earlier works were presented at John Rich’s Covent Garden Theatre, built specifically for multimedia spectaculars, whereas the two last operas premiered at the third Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, which was much smaller and far less technically advanced.

Handel, who showed great interest in the visual aspects of his operas, usually wrote the stage directions himself, but the word ‘Deliziosa’ used for the only set in this opera, was probably thought up by his English publisher, as was the English translation into ‘A Pleasant Garden’. In his article on Imeneo in New Grove Opera 2, Anthony Hicks describes this procedure with an example from Ezio, where Handel’s twenty-four-word stage direction in Italian is simplified to the single word “Deliziosa” by the publisher. In this production, the word is realised as one of those man-made wild and rocky gardens so beloved of the eighteenth-century upper classes. In this case it borders the Aegean, to make it easy for the pirates to land, no doubt. The set has wings showing the front of a Greek temple on either side. There is a statue of Ceres. The backdrop is a cloudy sky. Apart from a few shifts during the intervals, the scenery remains the same throughout the opera.

The choice of Imeneo in Göttingen will have been made for more than purely artistic reasons: financial ones perhaps, but because this is a Handel festival, the question was also which opera would be suitable in the series, which has been going since 1920. Imeneo had never yet been performed in Göttingen. The upside is that there are no expectations to be frustrated. On the contrary, we get more than can be found in the libretto. Stage director and choreographer Sigrid T’Hooft brought six members of her dance group Corpo Barocco and added dances to the action. Apart from the minuet following the overture, the Imeneo score offers no room for dancing. Happily T’Hooft has made room. The excellent baroque dancers make a valuable contribution. The dance music added is mainly from the Water Music suites in G and D (HWV 349-350), the concerto grosso op. 6 no. 7 (HWV 325) and Handel’s suites no. 4 (HWV 429) and no. 7 (HWV 432). The choices made were probably prompted by the fact that the complete Water Music was on the programme for the gala in honour of the Festival Orchestra’s tenth birthday. Handel could have done the same in a comparable situation, though he might have preferred to use dances from more recent years, when he was working with the well-known dancer Marie Sallé in Covent Garden Theatre. Sallé however, had returned to Paris.

Handel knew how to make the best use of available resources. He made Imeneo a baritone, although Handel’s heroes usually have high voices. Two years later, in Dublin, the Imeneo part was sung by a tenor. Nor was he opposed to quoting from music that he had written far earlier. Among the many recycled pieces, we find one written even before Water Music: ‘Ah, cruda gelosia’, Arcane’s aria from the first act of Teseo, now Rosmene’s ‘Deh, m’aiutate, o Dei!’, dates from 1713. There are also musical ideas pointing forward to Messiah, which premiered in Dublin just after Imeneo had been performed there in March 1742. We find them in the chorus at the end of the first act and Tirinto’s ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’ is similar to ‘Why do the Nations’.

Aside from the Greek chorus (nine singers in the stage boxes dressed in twentieth-century black) the source calls for only five singers on stage: Tirinto (countertenor James Laing), the beloved of Rosmene (soprano Anna Dennis), Argenio (bass-baritone Matthew Brook), the father of Rosmene’s bosom friend Clomiri (soprano Stefanie True) and Imeneo (baritone William Berger), Hymen to us. All these soloists were excellent, with voices admirably suited to the baroque repertoire. The recitatives and arias were accompanied by correct baroque gesture.

The story takes place before Hymen has become a god and the original sources seem to be Sappho and Euripides. Rosmene and Clomiri have been captured by pirates (a serious threat in Handel’s time) while on their way to sacrifice to Ceres. Argenio and Tirinto are bemoaning their abduction. In this production Argenio is your basic dark-clad heavy Greek father. Tirinto wears a pale blue costume with a short cape, decorated with knots of red ribbon, for a lover, and a matching tricorne. Suddenly, on comes Imeneo, in a much richer costume than Tirinto’s, with a knee-length coat and a train (which is gone after the first act). In spite of his not wearing a hat, baroque aficionados are thus aware that this is the story’s main character, although the music suggests otherwise. Imeneo boasts that he has hidden among the captured girls (shades of Achilles in Deidamia) and freed them after heroically killing all the pirates in their sleep. Imeneo’s gestures are much more theatrical than those of the other singers, as befits the pompous ass he initially is. Although he reports truthfully how he killed the pirates, his gestures suggest that they were fighting back. At this point the chorus gets into the act, adjuring lovers in G major to raise their hopes and telling us that Imeneo has arrived with Amor. At the same time, the dancers appear bearing sickles and wheatsheaves, both related to Ceres.

Argenio and Tirinto are grateful and ironically it is Tirinto who mentions a reward. Alas, for him, the only reward Imeneo wants is Rosmene’s hand in marriage. Argenio promises to support his claim. Here come the girls. They are beautifully dressed, have panniers and draped Greekish shawls. The girls are fussing around with parasols, Rosmene’s having a knot of red ribbon the colour of both her dress and Tirinto’s ribbons, and the accompanying handmaiden (a dancer) playfully takes the parasol; then Tirinto has it, then Rosmene again. The mise-en-scène is full of this kind of coding, characteristic of baroque opera and beautifully brought to life in this production.

As there is very little pictorial evidence from the final Handel operas, the design has been inspired by contemporary paintings. In addition, we are given more clues as to characterisation, as Rosmene’s bodice is covered in blooming red roses, whereas the younger Clomiri’s has buds. We learn from her that she has a crush on Imeneo. She warns him that Rosmene doesn’t love him. Rosmene herself is in doubt, her vacillation between major and minor keys suggesting that she is indecisive, the broken texture of the accompaniment reinforcing this, as Dr. Babington pointed out in her pre-concert lecture. Imeneo has become aware that there might be a problem but presses his suit: ‘Mine she must be – the lovely turtle dove’, a boastful aria (he only has two) in A major – most of the opera is in a minor key. The chorus tells us again that Imeneo is coming, that lovers must have hope – all be happy!  Handel’s music signals that this is the end of the act, however a dance with torches follows, referring to Hymen after he has become a god – but that’s a different story.

Act Two: Rosmene is torn. Argenio makes his opinion crystal clear: ingratitude is worse than infidelity. He illustrates this by what has been called The Lion Song: the man who extracted a thorn from a lion’s paw (Androcles – not named in the aria) is later kissed rather than killed by the beast in the arena, such is gratitude. Matthew Brook makes the most of this one, going down not one but two octaves to D in the repeat of ‘poi si ferma’, to the delight of the audience. The relationship between Argenio and his daughter’s best friend is never explained. He urges her in the name of Senate, Country and Reason to be grateful and marry Imeneo. He may have two personal reasons: his gratitude for the return of his daughter and perhaps he is afraid that Clomiri might otherwise marry the man herself?

Clomiri tries to support her friend but is rejected as being too young and giddy to understand. She then reports Rosmene’s dilemma to Tirinto, who becomes even more jealous and unhappy. Clomiri tells an indifferent Imeneo that ‘a girl she knows’ loves Imeneo, in her aria ‘È sì vaga’. ‘The girl’, however, is more interested in Imeneo’s happiness than her own. Imeneo knows perfectly well that she is referring to herself. In the next scene he sings his second aria, ‘Chi scherza con le rose’ (one who toys with roses will get pricked).

Argenio says that it must be Rosmene’s choice; Imeneo begins to grow up, realising that Tirinto’s love for Rosmene is far deeper than his own. After Rosmene sings a trio with the despairing Tirinto and Imeneo in which she again expresses her unwillingness to be either untrue to the one or ungrateful to the other. The chorus – in d minor – returns to tell us that Imeneo will conquer her heart, as Amor has already done. Before we get to this point however, the pirates have appeared, come to avenge their fellows killed by Imeneo.

Act Three: Tirinto tries to make Rosmene decide in his favour and blames her for being disloyal, while Imeneo reminds her again that he deserves her gratitude. She wants to leave but they hold her back and ask her to come to a decision, which she promises to do, but not yet. The men, left behind, both fear that they will not survive rejection. Clomiri, still referring to herself in the third person, tells Imeneo again that she loves him but will be happy if he is chosen by Rosmene, as it is his happiness that concerns her above all. Imeneo pretends again not to understand to whom she is referring.

In the last scene Rosmene returns, feigns insanity, and calls upon the spirit of Radamanto who she says will decide for her. In this production Radamanto materializes as a dancer. Rosmene collapses and is caught by both Tirinto and Imeneo. When she regains consciousness, her decision has been made in favour of Imeneo and in a final duet Rosmene and Tirinto sing that ‘through the gates of torment the souls reach joy’, after which she joins Imeneo. In the final chorus we are assured (in e minor) that the noble soul ‘does not bow to its desire but follows reason’. During this last chorus the singers in the stage boxes use baroque gesture too, thereby demonstrating unintentionally that this is not as easy at it looks.

The main characters worship Ceres, the Roman (!) goddess of agriculture, grain and fertility, and the dancers were dressed appropriately. Like the vocal soloists, they carried the proper attributes and supported the singers in depicting the story. But they did more than that. The addition of the pirates to the second act fits in perfectly with the libretto’s narrative and was thought out in the most minute detail. The women dancers were not dressed as male pirates, but remained most recognisably feminine, an allusion to the real-life female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read who helped to make the Caribbean so dangerous some twenty years before Handel’s opera was composed. The pirates’ headdresses were particularly wonderful: for instance a tricorne with the model of a three-master on it was thoroughly in the tradition of the baroque theatre. Both costumes and scenery followed the conventions and there was no trace of the twentieth-century aesthetic that irritated us in Amadigi four years ago.

The lighting contributed considerably to the successful stage design. The candelabra are more compact and decorative than ones we saw in earlier historically informed productions in this theatre. There were nine of them, four above the forestage and five behind the proscenium arch, each with six candles. The candles are not actually made of wax and thus need no snuffing. Nor do they drip onto the singers, dancers or orchestra members. They are ewigbrenner (ever-burning): synthetic cartridges filled with paraffin and with a long wick, which can be adjusted to regulate the size of the flame. So they really work more like the oil lamps also used in the baroque theatre. The candles were also used both as footlights, in combination with a reflector to hide them from the audience, and in the wings. As fire regulations limited the number of candles to 250, the candlelight was augmented with great care by electric lighting invisible to the audience, except for the spotlights above the orchestra. Aside from the warm colour candlelight confers, the uniform lighting also leaves the audience free to decide where to bestow its attention.

The front drop curtain was one we hadn’t seen before: a cloudy sky with two hovering Amoretti, designed by Stephan Dietrich, was made because the theatre’s regular curtain would have come too close to the candles. It must have blown quite a hole in the budget, but it is a most beautiful addition to the theatre, enhancing the atmosphere.

We hadn’t heard the orchestra since Amadigi under Andrew Parrott in 2012 and a lot can happen in four years. We were more than happy to find out that the superb orchestra, founded by the then artistic director of the festival, Nicholas McGegan, has retained its characteristic rich colouring and passion, paired with an amazing technique. The brass and percussion were not called for in the opera, but this was more than made up for at the gala, mentioned above. Lawrence Cummings, who has been the artistic director since 2012, has dealt respectfully with the heritage entrusted to him and proves a worthy successor to Mr McGegan.

In the series of performances with baroque staging in Göttingen, this production is another major step forward. Though the libretto itself does not allow for spectacular staging, the company has achieved a unified and most entertaining result of exceptional quality.

Imeneo was performed at the Göttingen Handel Festival between May 6th and May 16th 2016.