Composer: George Frideric Handel
Director: Laura Attridge
Conductor: Ellie Slorach
One of the good things about the Leeds Opera Festival is that you never know what’s to come, just that it will be worth watching and quite obscure. Between last year’s Gustave Holst Festival and next year’s Latin American Fiesta, we have a study of power. A free performance of Krenek The dictator at the Holbeck and various performances of a new musical theater piece aside, the main focus was three performances of Handel Silla at the Leeds School of Arts.
There are few traces of performance of Silla in Handel’s time, but there have been a few recordings in the last 20 years. The Northern Opera Group tackles the issues head-on and contemporary relevance is inescapable. Laura Attridge produces a captivating evening that loses some of its momentum late on, much like the opera itself – who could believe that Silla would be so easily defeated?
It’s a thoroughly modern interpretation, with news cameras and reporters and a trio of extras working hard to put events into context. The result is that the six leads, all of whom have received their fair share of Handel arias, fit very strongly as characters: it’s hard to forget Flavia in her pajamas reminiscing about her nightmares. A couple of things stand out better as ideas than in execution. Lepido, the tribune, very elegantly transforms into Lepida who then, according to the program note, “tries to comfort his wife, Flavia”. Given that the gender of the characters is very fluid in Handel’s operas – and with two characters sometimes played by surprisingly delivered men in this production – this seems like a lean too much towards modernity.
The plot of Silla reads worse than it plays. Simply put, Silla sets himself up as the sole ruler of Rome after defeating his rival Mario. Many people oppose him, but only Claudio goes so far as to organize a rebellion. What is particularly interesting about Silla’s abuse of power is his attempt to have Flavia as his mistress and his “adoption” of Celia, daughter of his main ally and Claudio’s lover. Everything looks very 21st century!
After an early morning rush of preparations for the opening, Silla (Idunnu Munch) addresses her audience, her smug smile fitting alongside her venomous cruelty – sometimes in the space of a moment. capo aria. Equally characterized and beautifully sung is Frances Gregory’s Claudio, its first two arias encompassing the character, a magnificent love song to Celia and the call to rebellion, aided by Chris Parsons’ splendid trumpet and embarrassed (in a extent) by eccentric choreography for the extras.
The main six are precisely matched. All enjoy their dramatic moments, most have their occasions for tenderness. Lucy Hall, increasingly front and center as Metella, Silla’s wife Isabelle Peters and Alison Rose, particularly touching in their scenes together as Lepida and Flavia and Stephanie Hershaw (Celia), revealing emotional depths to the as the opera progresses, are all excellent. So does Trevor Eliot Bowes, a heavy metal god and looming presence as Scabro.
Aided by Charly Dunford’s imaginative lighting, April Dalton’s designs are essentially a wide, stepped area filled with everything from furniture to dirt and gravel. Behind a backstage screen, Eboracum Baroque, a 15-piece period band, plays in style for Ellie Slorach.
Reviewed on August 27, 2022