Giove in Argo (Britten Theatre)

The first modern-day performance of a little-known Handel opera

Pater Aisher as Giove and Angela Simkin as Iside in Giove in Argo (London Handel Festival)
Pater Aisher as Giove and Angela Simkin as Iside in Giove in Argo (London Handel Festival)
© Chris Christodoulou

The scholar John H Roberts has pieced together enough bones from Handel’s lost Italian opera to make a passable corpse, and now Laurence Cummings is on hand to breathe life into it. Yet Giove in Argo is no lurching Frankenstein creature. Patch-and-make-do it may be, since Roberts has made judicious borrowings and composed some discreet recitatives, but if I hadn’t known the opera‘s provenance I’d never have guessed it wasn’t a complete original.

Giove in Argo is the centrepiece of this year’s London Handel Festival, and a proper romp it is as Giove – the randy arch-god Jupiter – amuses himself by roaming the countryside in the human guise of handsome Arete and sets about seducing two young women, Iside and Calisto. The drama arises when both of his victims turn out to have what we’d now call personal issues.

James Bonas directs this flimsy tale, most of whose six characters seem to be impersonating shepherds, with theatrical relish and visual flair but with little concern for narrative clarity, so you’ll be well advised to read the plot beforehand. Molly Einchcomb‘s abstract designs provide a satisfying context of pole-ladders and elastic strips, but Bonas has his cast fidget with them constantly, seemingly worried lest the audience lose interest during long 'da capo' arias. He should trust Handel more – and us.

Since the production has been mounted in collaboration with the RCM International Opera School, the soloists and eight-strong chorus are all youthful singers at the start of their careers. At such times it’s exciting to look out for future stars, and in Angela Simkin we have one. A mezzo of rich velours and substantial range and power, she already has an impressive CV and is destined for great things. Simkin might arguably have found more shades to her voice as Iside, but it’s still a remarkable performance.

The impressive bass Matthew Buswell has scandalously little to do as Licaone, but he lights the stage whenever he enters. No one, though, matches Sofia Larsson as his daughter, Calisto, for intensity and dramatic engagement with her character, notwithstanding the indignities heaped on her by Bonas. There are good contributions from Rose Setten as the goddess Diana and Nicholas Morton as Osiri, the disguised king of Egypt (don’t ask), while Peter Aisher goes through the wringer as Arete/Giove himself, at one point singing one of Handel’s fiendish runs while scuttling backwards, face up, on all fours.

This was the ‘odd’ cast. There’s an alternate set of soloists on ‘even’ nights, although the chorus is unchanging – and an eight-strong delight they are, especially when they sing as individuals from various points in the Britten Theatre‘s beautiful auditorium. Cummings’s virtuosic London Handel Orchestra is packed with familiar names and engulfs the voices in a luxurious instrumental bed.

There are further performances of Giove in Argo on 24, 25 and 26 March