Stone Nest: an evocative name for a venue that delivers shabby chic in spades. Four decades on from its deconsecration as a Welsh Chapel and lately delivered from the clutches of London clubbers, this denuded, crumbling old structure makes Wilton’s Music Hall look like a new build. The ideal place for experimental theatre, then.

Jonathon Luke Baker and Patrick Terry
© Camilla Greenwell

The London Handel Festival used Stone Nest last week for a bold, daring piece of theatre-in-the-round. In the Realms of Sorrow was an event that justifies the hackneyed “immersive” tag, because it bathed the audience in a wash of immediacy that transcended most people’s experience of intimate theatre. The production by Adele Thomas owed more to Punchdrunk than to perceived concert etiquette.

Thomas, it seems, can do no wrong. Her production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet last year reinvented what can be done to strip the stilted patina of grime from stagings of Baroque opera, and her new Il trovatore (The Royal Opera) and Semele (Glyndebourne) are mere months away. Meanwhile the Welsh director has sustained her extraordinary run of fizz with this unlikely concatenation of four Handel cantatas.

The quartet of scenes, all secular essays from the composer’s Italian period, share a common theme: bereavement and mourning. Cutting to the chase, all four performances were stunning. Countertenor Patrick Terry deserves special mention not only for shouldering the longest work of the four, but for mixing it with the choreography by Emma Woods and for singing a female role. In Il delirio amoroso the besotted Chloris descends to Hades to bring back the deceased Thyrsis, a man who never returned her love when he was alive. It lies unusually high for a countertenor but Terry was electrifying, even converting his cruel tessitura into drama.

Nardus Williams
© Camilla Greenwell

The production’s utility corpse was Jonathon Luke Baker, a tireless, writhing dancer who spent the entire evening in various states of undeath. Baker’s sensuality and feline grace made him far more than a mere object of lamentation as he and Woods created a physical world around whom the singers could revolve. He, in common with some of the singers and all the itinerant musicians, was dressed in casual modern-dress black, as though for a theatre workshop... but this show was as far from fly-by-night improv as it's possible to get. The eight musicians under Laurence Cummings played whole chunks of their scores from memory, whether dotted around the edges of the auditorium or integrated into the action, while the dramas were directed by Thomas with meticulous care and invention.

Three of our leading sopranos, all fabulous in the best sense, took on the remaining cantatas. Nardus Williams as the abandoned Armida, resplendent in a glittering gown, entered from on high; Soraya Mafi, by contrast, was a fireball of youthful despair as Ero who mourns for her Leandro. However, it was Claire Booth as Agrippina (sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero) who topped the bill as an unhinged platinum blonde of, shall we say, conflicted emotions towards her deceased son. Her self-laceration led her to strip away all the falseness of her painted beauty and stand alone and bereft, lost in the realm of sorrow. It was a vivid, courageous moment of theatre.

Claire Booth
© Camilla Greenwell

The cantatas were linked and tinkered with (though only slightly) by apt interpolations by composer Héloïse Werner, and it fell to countertenor James Laing to express most of these in his role as the eeriest master of ceremonies this side of Cabaret. A harbinger of death, no question.

I do take issue with lighting designer Josh Pharo's overuse of strobe lighting – a dangerous game for some spectators and at the least an unpleasant one for others – but his text projections were another matter. It’s rare to give pride of place to the surtitles in opera but Pharo's had a mind of their own and they travelled the length and breadth – and height – of the building’s ancient cupola. It was a sight-specific challenge and all part of the fun. Who would have guessed that an evening all about death could be so life-affirming?