The story of Theseus, Ariadne, the Minotaur and the labyrinth is one of Greek mythology's most familiar. Throw in some confusion as to Ariadne’s parentage, a couple more heroes wishing to slay the monster, another love interest and a fair smattering of coloratura, and you get Handel’s Arianna in Creta. This Royal College of Music production for the London Handel Festival doesn’t offer a new take on this opera, but it does present some truly magnificent singing.
The plot of Arianna in Creta concerns Arianna (Ariadne) and her lover Teseo (Theseus). Teseo must defeat the Minotaur in order to free his home town, the city of Athens. He does this with the help of Arianna, who gives him a ball of yarn to help him find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth, and is thus allowed to marry Arianna. In Handel’s version, the plot is complicated further by the addition of several other heroes and another pair of lovers.
Selina Cadell’s production offered a relatively straightforward telling of the story, using a sparse set consisting of mostly painted flats and a staircase. While presented in a tidy manner, the stage action was lacking. For the most part, the characters adopted stand and deliver mode, both when singing themselves and when listening to others. For certain numbers, that might have worked very well indeed, but the problem was that the “park and bark” approach was used throughout, with the exception of a couple excursions into the auditorium, which seemed oddly out of place. However, the introduction of a silent character, the god Cupid, added life to an otherwise static production.
Arianna in Creta was the first opera Handel composed for the famed castrato Giovanni Carestini, known across Europe as one of the most virtuosic singers of his day. Handel’s writing for him demonstrates this; Teseo's music is blindingly virtuosic, with incredible runs and coloratura passages flung out at almost every opportunity. Countertenor Tai Oney was up to the task, navigating the intricate coloratura with ease, although he lacked power in his lower register. He also possessed an heroic stage presence, although as with the rest of the production, the direction was lacking.
As Arianna, Soraya Mafi matched Oney in terms of sheer virtuosity, once she had warmed up properly, and she interpolated some exciting high notes. Her brilliant final duet with Oney was one of the highlights of the evening. However, she was left stranded on stage purely as an onlooker for considerable portions of the production, especially in Act I. Amy Williamson’s Carilda had the most beautiful voice of the whole cast, her dark mezzo sounding alluringly contralto-like at times. Her arias, especially those in the first and second acts offered a surprisingly welcome melancholy break from the otherwise dazzling vocal writing.
As Carilda’s lover, Alceste, Anna Rajah gave an impassioned portrayal. The greatest performance came from the Kezia Bienek as Tauride. She was the only performer I felt had formed a complete character, and even though it at times bordered on the camp, especially in Act III, she was a delight to watch. Her coloratura was accomplished, although Tauride’s arias are not as blatantly showy as Teseo’s or Arianna’s. Ahead of the performance, it was announced that she was suffering from both sinusitis and laryngitis, but any vocal indisposition was virtually undetectable. The London Handel Orchestra gave an impassioned performance lead by conductor Laurence Cummings, a few intonation issues in the horns aside.
This production of Handel’s Arianna in Creta, despite a staging which is too static, still delights due to the truly excellent singing.