It's a vintage year for Handel anoraks, and anyone attempting to collect the full badge set of operas (43 in all) will be dropping anchor in Greenwich for this rare revival given by Trinity College students under professional tutelage.
Though one of the composer's late London operas, Giustino has the youthful smack of escapist entertainment. It is constructed for all the world like a modern, through-composed musical, with recitatives of refreshing brevity that herald an abundance of short, distinctive set pieces. Stirring arias, colourful duets and a few snappy choruses all tumble over one another to maintain variety and propel the storyline. And what a silly story it is! Giustino is a country lad who rescues an empress from a sea monster, marries her daughter and discovers that the ‘tyrant of Asia Minor' is his long-lost brother.
As jolly, picaresque piffle, Giustino will have satisfied the 18th-century appetite for stage spectacle, but it presents a headache for any modern director who attempts to make a case for it on a tight budget. Therein lie the perils of this new production which, like the opera itself, is a tale of derring-do, noble heroes and boo-hiss villains.
Musical Director Philip Thorby and his fine Baroque orchestra provide a rich textural cushion for the performers, several of whom sing superbly. A few of them can act too, which doesn't hurt – although, perhaps inevitably, not all of the students are ‘double-threat' in this respect. At the performance I attended, the outstanding exceptions were Peter Kirk, a ringing tenor who portrays Vitaliano as an impish tyrant, and Zoë Bonner as the Empress Arianna. With her sure, honeyed soprano and some emotionally truthful characterisation, Bonner in particular is a revelation. These two share the acting honours with Helena Daffern as the Emperor Anastasio, while the pick of the other singers are Daniel Roddick as the treacherous Amanzio and the Polidarte of Matthew Kellett, whose warm, resonant bass tones emerge quite unexpectedly from his youthful frame.
On to the production itself, and the aforementioned boo-hiss villains. Olivia Fuchs directs wilfully, with a perfunctory nod in the direction of Commedia dell'Arte, and although there are patches of inventiveness during the later acts she hamstrings her own work by giving free rein to the tiresome indulgences of her designer. Ellan Parry's dreary polythene stage is only equalled in bathos by her witless, derivative costume ideas. Between them, she and Fuchs place hurdle after hurdle in the way of their performers and do what they can to subvert the audience's enjoyment of the delights that emerge from their musical betters.
Giustino has the silliest plot imaginable, which is precisely why it requires a skilful production. Fuchs's first hour in particular is such a mess that it knocks the stuffing out of the entire evening, notwithstanding the efforts of her brave cast. Baroque comedy needs zany staging like a hole in the head; and when Fuchs and Parry bludgeon us with their jokes, desperate for us to laugh, resistance proves irresistible.