I've just finished a short touring production of Handel's Xerxes, presented by Longborough Festival Opera. Longborough is gradually being recognised as one of the miracles of the English summer opera season, an alternative to the likes of Glyndebourne and Garsington which operates on a much smaller and more domestic level, but with a commitment to the largest and most challenging peaks of the operatic repertoire. The festival's founders, Martin and Lizzie Graham, have converted an old barn on the estate of their Cotswold home into a 500-seat theatre with a deep, recessed orchestra pit on the model of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus, which they find to be ideally suited to performing the stage works of Richard Wagner – a complete Ring Cycle, no less, and, this year, an acclaimed production of Tristan und Isolde. In recent years this programme has been complemented by a Young Artists Programme with a focus on Handel's operas. Baroque opera is clearly a better fit for the vast majority of young voices than Tristan or Götterdämmerung, but might seem less suited to the configuration of this particular theatre. Director Jenny Miller and conductor Jeremy Silver's solution to this potential problem was to bring the small baroque band up out of the pit and arrange them on a raised platform at the back of the stage. With the help of some smart costuming by Faye Bradley, they were also incorporated into the world of Jenny's production, a seedy nightclub where shady deals are struck, the liquor flows freely and the threat of violence is never very far below the surface.
What I especially liked about the production was its willingness to present individual arias as occasions on which characters were literally standing up and singing a song, and to make dramatic sense of this. I realise that this may sound like either the most obvious or the most ridiculous thing to say about an opera production – given that it's a given of the genre that virtually the whole libretto is sung anyway, isn't it fundamental to the suspension of disbelief required of the audience that, at one level, they forget that the characters/actors are singing? That may well be true, much of the time; but nevertheless, even the most seasoned opera-goer can probably remember performances in which it started to seem artificial or plain clunky that the flow of action was repeatedly being interrupted by the need for individuals to spend four or five minutes elaborately and artfully emoting. Nowhere is this danger more conspicuous than in the operas of the high baroque, with their conventional alteration between dramaturgically-rich recitative conversations between characters and da capo arias in which two or three lines of text are stretched out over several minutes by an individual singer, with music that gives priority to formal repetition and vocal display over dramatic momentum. In their recent single-volume history of opera, Roger Parker and Carolyn Abbate point out that Handel's operas were intended less as cogent music dramas than as showcases for a series of star singers, each of whom needed to be given a varied series of arias designed to showcase the different facets of their vocal artistry, spread over the course of the evening. The show-stopping effect of each aria would of course be further enhanced if it could conclude with the singer exiting the stage. All of this goes a long way towards explaining why the plots of Handel's operas can seem so convoluted and plain confusing – it's hard for a composer to maintain a sense of dramatic unity and inexorable progress towards crisis and resolution when the basic dramaturgical shape available to him is a vocal beauty parade in which singers queue up to flaunt their coloratura and then leave. In fact, one of the pleasures of Xerxes is the multiple ways Handel finds to alter and subvert the conventions of the da capo form. Nevertheless, the plot can seem both bewildering (it doesn't help that four out of seven of the principal characters have names beginning with the same letter) and insubstantial to the point of downright silliness; and anyone directing the work has to decide how to keep the momentum from flagging each time a singer embarks on an A-section aria repeat. Jenny Miller's deft solution to this lay in her nightclub setting, in which it made sense for arias to be presented by turns as spontaneous outbursts of emotion from one character to another, or as performances delivered from the nightclub stage, with the band as backing group, and the remaining characters sitting at onstage tables, enjoying the show. With this basic structure in place, the production became, in part, an exploration of the dynamics of the act of performance and of the relationship between performer and audience member. Ostentatious enthusiasm for Xerxes's showpiece arias seemed motivated as much by fear and sycophancy as by genuine admiration; Romilda became a vulnerable showgirl, cruelly forced onstage to perform for a male audience, who nonetheless found ways of asserting her own feelings and perhaps turning her audience into the ones being exploited; her younger sister Atalanta took the stage as a born attention-seeker, parodying a series of adult poses and leaving us guessing as to how knowing her performances really were; and the wretched Amastre used her anguished arias to pour out her heart, only to be received as just another entertainer.
Two sell-out performances in Longborough were warmly received, before the show transferred to the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music – a bold and very welcome move on Longborough's part, ensuring that their Young Artists would have the opportunity to be seen and heard by influential industry professionals. Perhaps the most enjoyable performance of all, though, was the one we gave at St Mary-in-the-Castle in Hastings, a Georgian church cut into the cliff face, now functioning as an arts venue, where the nightclub environment onstage spilt out into the cabaret-style tables and chairs in the auditorium.