In a land where any performance of a Handel opera is an extremely rare event, it was an unexpected pleasure to be able to attend the New Zealand première of Handel's Oreste, a collaboration between Auckland Opera Studio and NZ Barok, Auckland's local baroque-instrument orchestra. Oreste is often referred to as a pasticcio, an opera that apart from the recitatives and some of the orchestral interludes was entirely assembled from already extant music. The difference in this case is that it was compiled by the composer himself from his own existing operas as part of his 1734 Covent Garden season. The opening night featured basically the same line-up of luminaries as Handel's later Alcina (including Carestini and Anna Maria Strada del Pò) and while Auckland Opera Studio possibly couldn't match that star power, this performance of Oreste showcased a exceptionally strong young cast keenly in tune with Handelian style.
The period of the music's composition ranges from 1709 (one aria from Agrippina) to 1732 (several from Sosarme) with many arias being recycled from lesser-known Handel operas such as Siroe and Ottone. Given the decades across which Handel penned the original music it is remarkable at how coherent in style Oreste is, never sounding like a hodgepodge like many pasticcios can. The plot, adapted from Euripides, is basically familiar to those who know Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, though with the addition of Oreste's wife Ermione and the guard Filotete who is in love with Ifigenia. While the characterisation is significantly more two-dimensional and the dramatic arc less convincing than Gluck's masterpiece, Handel's music is a consistent delight, each aria giving a credible emotional flavour to its new position. Billed as a semi-staged production, Auckland Opera Studio's stage design featured a few simple props and some apt images and designs projected onto the rear wall of the stage. Benjamin Henson's direction was effective, giving dramatic impetus despite the rather stilted plot. A few arias were cut from the third act, tightening the drama considerably, and while the arias were given in Italian, the bridging recitatives were in English.
The lead role, written for the famed castrato Carestini, was taken here by Stephen Diaz. His is a large voice for a countertenor, rounded in tone and with a general heroic ring out into the theatre. This role features one ridiculously difficult coloratura aria after another and, like all the cast, he showed great imagination in the decorations in the reprises of the da capo arias, launching into a miraculous flurry of scales in the virtuosic "Agitato da fiere tempeste". Occasional insecurity of breath affected the legato of some of his later arias but he acquitted himself more than honourably in his even more fiendish closing number. Opposite him were two well-contrasted soprano leads in the roles of Ermione and Ifigenia. Rebecca Ryan as the former had the more vocally acrobatic of the two roles and she conquered the fioritura with consummate skill, achieving lovely delicacy in the ubiquitous bird-metaphor aria and raging with equal skill in her angry outbursts at the tyrannical king Toante. Following on from her success as Papagena in NZ Opera's The Magic Flute, Madison Nonoa brought effortless lyricism to the languid arias of the priestess Ifigenia. The higher register has a particularly glowing radiance, a feature she took repeated advantage of in her da capo variations, floating jewel-like high notes into the hall. It was a pity that the lovely "Mi lagnero tacendo" (originally from Siroe) was cut as she would no doubt have delivered it stunningly.
Equally fine was the stentorian bass of James Ioelu in the role of the nasty king Toante. In addition to the woody richness of his voice across its range, he also showed keen attention the words, bringing venom to some of his key phrases in recitative and a warmth to his wooing of Ermione. As Oreste's loyal friend Pilade, Lexus Song Quest runner-up Filipe Manu (Nonoa placed third) had less to do but brought a rare intensity to his ode to friendship, "Caro amico," more commonly heard as "Figlia mia" in Tamerlano. The alto role of Filotete was here transposed for tenor and seemed to lie a little low for Kalauni Pouvalu, keeping largely him below the part of his voice with the most focus. NZ Barok, playing on historic instruments, had their scratchy and squeaky moments, though one appreciated the intimacy that came out of the small group and the continuo playing was consistently alert in recitative. Handel's Oreste could hardly hoped for a better introduction to New Zealand and we can only hope the collaboration between Auckland Opera Studio and NZ Barok will bear fruit with further premières in the future.
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