Ivo Šindelář

Handel's Opera 'Sosarme, Re di Media'
at the London Handel Festival 2004

Title-page of the information pamphlet for the 27th London Handel Festival, 14 March - 16 May 2004.

On Tuesday 30 March 2004, a four-member delegation of the Czech Handel Society attended this year's production of the opera 'Sosarme, Re di Media' ('Sosarmes, King of Media') at the London Handel Festival 2004. The performance was favourably reviewed in the English press, although with some rebukes about the whole conception and, especially, about the controversial ending. After we saw it, we can say that prospective reservations were unjustified, and it was a very good production on the whole.

First we should mention that it was not an authentic 'baroque' performance as the audience might be familiar with from, for example, Göttingen. Instead of baroque gestures and costumes, we got a modern, funny and functional production full of interesting ideas that, however, did not impair the most important part of the show - Handel's brilliant music.

'Sosarme', which was written in early 1732, made its première at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, London, on 15 February of the same year and can be considered Handel's best work of the period. It was warmly received by the audience, an exception for Handel's operatic production in the 1730s. A more detailed information about the opera and its history can be found on the Czech Handel Society's website. A Czech production of this opera was successfully presented at the theatre of the stately home Mnichovo Hradiště, Czech Republic, in 2003, and it also appeared on the programme of the 2004 International Handel Festival Göttingen.

The functional, albeit unremarkable scene in the Britten Theatre, London, designed by Colin Peters, was set up from a few pieces of furniture, some moving partitions and a background representing outlines of a town or mountains. There also appeared three or four blocks of quasi-antique statues on the stage in the third act. The costumes looked to be from the first decades of the twentieth century and evoked a feeling of Imperial Russia among some spectators. William Relton's particularly remarkable direction was neither static, nor overloaded with a meaningless action, as is sometimes the case in contemporary productions of baroque operas. The overall tone was quite light: much more a 'semiseria' or even a pure 'buffa', than an 'opera seria'.

The London Handel Orchestra, conducted by Laurence Cummings, played generally very well and its performance was light and elegant. There were only few inaccurate moments in the string section during the whole evening and some miscarried tones by the horns during Sosarme's aria in the second act. Generally, however, there was not much to complain about.


London Handel Festival 2004. Handel's opera 'Sosarme, Re di Media' on the stage of the Britten Theatre, London. Première on 25 March 2004.

Despite the fact that Sosarme is the title hero, his own love story is overshadowed by a real drama - a dynastic crisis represented by the King Haliate and his two sons, the first-born Argone and the illegitimate Melo. For Sosarme, however, Handel wrote charming and spectacular music, and he had a very good reason to do so: the première of Sosarme was performed by the famous castrato Senesino. In the Britten Theatre we heard in the same role the Finnish mezzo-soprano Essi Luttinen, whose warm and delicately coloured voice with a touch of fast vibrato made a very good impression, although we would wish for a little more volume occasionally, especially in the second act aria 'Alle sfere della gloria' with horns. The role of Sosarme's fiancée, Elmira, was performed by the soprano Elizabeth Watts. She acted very naturally on the stage, and her vocal expression, in the beginning somewhat operetta-like, became more dramatic through the course of the opera. Both Luttinen and Watts performed superbly together in Sosarme and Elmira's lovely duet 'Per le porte del tormento' in the second act, one of the highlights of the opera. The role of the Queen Erenice, Argone and Elmira's mother, was given to the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, who literally took control of the stage. She was a dignified Queen, fiery mother and sang magnificently. The tenor Nicholas Watts, who sang the role of the headstrong and ruthless, but at the same time childish and sometimes laughable King Haliate, also performed very well, but it took some time before he could establish his credibility. The role of Haliate's adviser and villain, Altomaro, was fairly performed by the baritone James Harrison. Unfortunately, his otherwise solid voice lacked a sufficient command of the lowest register, which made his singing less impressive than it could have been, especially during his beautiful entrance aria 'Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori', with big interval jumps. Acting as Haliate's sons, we could hear two countertenors with quite different voices. Because of his small part, Richard Scott, as the rebellious Prince Argone, did not have a real opportunity to show off his abilities. Timothy Mead however, in the role of the honest, but irresolute Melo, presented a pleasant voice and refined expression. The chamber choir did not have really much to sing, with the exception of the military chorus in the first act and the final chorus. Rather than looking like a regular army, it had the appearance of a group of poor and exhausted village people. Its otherwise secondary role became more important at the end of the opera when it suddenly appropriated the whole stage in some sort of remembrance ceremony represented by a field of white crosses.

It could have been a long evening as the whole opera took almost three and a half hours, with only one 20-minute intermission between the first and the second acts. However, thanks to Handel's glorious music and a sophisticated performance, the time passed almost imperceptibly.