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Review: Oreste (Wilton's Music Hall)

The Royal Opera's young artists are put through the wringer in a misguided Handel production

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Angela Simkin as Oreste and Jennifer Davis as Ifigenia in Oreste (ROH)
© Clive Barda

Jette Parker Young Artists productions in the Linbury Studio are always worth a visit. The young professionals in whom the Royal Opera invests so much effort and commitment get to strut their stuff, and as a rule they give a good show.

This year, not so much.

Gerard Jones's production of Oreste, a cut-and-paste pasticcio (a concoction of borrowed arias) for which Handel's anonymous librettist flattened out the Iphigenia story into gory melodrama, is a mess. He embraces the tale's darkness by relocating it to a torture-porn hell, complete with tagged walls and plastic sheeting; but then, like the opera's victims, he goes to pieces.

Perhaps the relocation to Wilton's Music Hall is to blame, its deserted shell less inspiring to Jones than the state-of-the-art Linbury stage at the Royal Opera House, but the last time I saw a show this misconceived was in a room above a pub.

Jones starts during Handel's overture by showing Agamemnon's daughter Ifigenia, late of Argos but now executioner-in-chief to the barbaric Toante, as she takes a hammer to a hooded figure. Oh the blood. How we laughed.

Merriment was inevitable because at 7.31pm the audience had nothing invested in any of the characters. It was an unearned attempt to shock. Factor in a lurching Filotele (Gyula Nagy), prowling and scowling like a Neanderthal to little purpose, and it was comedy central.

Things went downhill from there in an evening whose fringe theatre sensibility does a disservice to the talents of six excellent singers. The staging begs a hundred questions, such as why does Ifigenia don a plastic apron for her bone-crunching yet leave her long blond tresses hanging low to catch the blood? Concealment beats congealment, you'd think. Get a hairnet.

'The young stars' fireworks burn brightly'

Tonally it's all over the place with the grim and the whim coexisting in uneasy disharmony, as when a severed hand pokes out of a black bin bag. Really, if you're going to suggest dismemberment, do what Christopher Fettes once did in a production of Racine's Britannicus. Show nothing. But use two bin bags.

The pity lies in the lost opportunity for six powerful singers to enhance their CVs. Dramatically, their performances range from Nagy's gurn-fest through Vlada Borovko's strangely placid Ermione ("my soul is far from serene", she opines through the sweetest smile) to Angela Simkin's show-saving turn as a distracted, self-harming Oreste.

Simkin's mezzo is deliciously attuned to Handel's style, as is the Pilade of tenor Thomas Atkins even though his climactic aria is cruelly upstaged by an orgy of skull-bashing. Jennifer Davis, panda-eyed from mascara overload as Ifigenia, sings big; Simon Shibambu as the villainous Toante, curiously got up as a tinpot dictator in this backstreet ghetto, has little to do except glower a lot, make empty threats and then capitulate the moment someone sings at him.

The young stars' technical fireworks burn brightly, and James Hendry conducts members of Southbank Sinfonia (those who are not otherwise engaged in Amadeus at the NT) with true Handelian élan. But there's an art to directing Baroque operas with their everything-stops-for-tea da capo arias, and Jones has not yet cracked it. Put simply, less is more. And be careful with explicit violence. Blood spatter can be hilarious in the wrong hands, particularly if the perpetrator has to stand around while someone else sings a nine-minute solo.

Oreste runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 19 November.