Oreste is a Handel self-pasticcio, cobbled together by him in 1734 using arias from at least 12 of his earlier operas (from Arianna in Creta and Terpsichore that same year, to Rodrigo, 1707) two cantatas, and probably more. It involves the story of the Greek anti-hero Orestes, pursued by the Furies as a matricide; most opera-goers will be familiar with at least some aspects of the story as told in Strauss’ Electra, Taneyev’s Oresteia, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride and others, all ultimately derived from Euripides. Handel’s version is not unlike the last-named (but later) Gluck version, beginning with Oreste, on the run after killing Clytemnestra, cast ashore on Tauris (possibly to be identified with the Crimea) and finding there his sister Ifigenia whose job now is sacrificing strangers arriving in Tauris… not a good start. In the Handel version, he is soon joined there by his lover Ermione (not totally invented – in some versions of the Greek myths she was the daughter of Menelaus and Helen and betrothed to Orestes before all the Trojan nastiness).

Carolina Lippo (Ifigenia) and Florian Köfler (Filotete) © Herwig Prammer
Carolina Lippo (Ifigenia) and Florian Köfler (Filotete)
© Herwig Prammer

The production (from director Kay Link) seen at Bernburg in the small but delightful Carl Maria von Weber theatre, originated from Kammeroper, Theater an der Wien, and provides a modern police state setting. It opens with Ifigenia, bald and wearing a blood-spattered white plastic overall, standing next to a large bundle, presumably containing a dead person, hung up on a meat hook. She shortly dons a more stately Pharaonic priestess look with a tall black hat and long pleated black gown over which she sports a sort of golden bra. Oreste arrives, via the auditorium, in the form of a shipwreck victim wearing the tattered remnants of a naval uniform. He is followed not long after by Ermione in Bond girl mode, wearing a red scuba outfit and being helped up out of the orchestra pit by a musician. She quickly changes into a red dress and yellow coat ensemble; she seems better prepared for her arrival than the men. Oreste’s friend Pilade also turns up looking like a castaway. The despotic ruler (King) Toante gets around in typical police state black uniform and boots , and has a Scarpia-like scene with Ermione.

Matteo Loi (Toante) © Herwig Prammer
Matteo Loi (Toante)
© Herwig Prammer

The gloomy set comprises corrugated iron buildings, with various panels opening here and there. There is an emphasis on electronic surveillance; a round black ball with swivelling eye descends from above for interrogations, alternating with two more familiar looking cameras.  Some lighter moments intruded, but generally this was a grim vision despite the traditional happy ending. Presumably to emphasise this, the pleasant final coro (from Arianna in Creta) was omitted.

The version as performed is somewhat truncated but not violently; by Handelian standards it is in any case quite short. Dance music and a sinfonia, some accompagnatas, two coros and two arias (both for Filotete) are not included – a pity, in that some of this included new music Handel composed just for this work. The production moved along smartly, and the narrative was easy to follow. The Bach Consort Wien was conducted by Rubén Dubrovsky and seemed a bit ragged in the overture, but quickly consolidated to provide fine support for the singers and some lovely orchestral passages.

Matteo Loi (Toante) © Herwig Prammer
Matteo Loi (Toante)
© Herwig Prammer

The young vocal cast all gave of their best both musically and dramatically, although there were rather a few wayward notes here and there. The title role was sung by countertenor Ray Chenez, opening up the singing with the dramatic “Pensieri” from Agrippina, which fitted very well here, both musically and in terms of the production. Chenez has a nice, uncovered voice with more than acceptable high notes, and he looked and acted the part of the besieged Oreste. Lithuanian soprano Viktorija Baka stepped in for Anna Gillingham as Ermione, and you could certainly see why Oreste might be glad to see her, given her many changes from one rather glamorous (in the circumstances) outfit to another. Her pretty voice, and heartfelt renditions, suggest she is also a singer to watch out for in the future.  Similarly, Carolina Lippo in the Cecilia Young role of Ifignenia carried off the role of executioner-with-a heart quite successfully, also contributing an attractive voice. Julian Henao Gonzalez impressed with firm tenor tone as Pilade, though baritone Matteo Loi did not sound quite as ferocious as his persona. Florian Köfler as the bass Filotete, having lost both his arias, did not have a great deal to do, and the sub-plot involving him and Ifigenia was hardly even sketched in. It is always good to see a more or less full production of obscure works like this, especially one that demonstrates that there is a valid dramatic work here which can happily be adopted into the Handel operatic repertoire.