Imeneo (1740), Handel’s penultimate opera, is atypical on several fronts. It’s relatively short by Handel’s standards (three acts, under two hours of music); the plot is thin, but not as absurd or complicated as those of some of his other operas (there are no disguises, for example); the title role is composed for a bass; and the opera has a chorus which participates in the plot, rather than just singing at the end. When Handel was composing Imeneo, he was already exploring the new genre of the English oratorio – around the same time, he was working on the oratorio Saul – and one can detect echoes of this new genre in the opera too. Messiah was only a couple of years away.

The plot of the opera derives from a story about Hymen (Imeneo), the Greek god of marriage. Rosmene and her confidante Clomiri are abducted by pirates and Rosmira’s lover Tirinto laments their fate. However, the heroic Imeneo rescues them and the girls are brought home. As a sign of gratitude, Imeneo demands the hand of Rosmene, who is put in the impossible situation of having to choose between being faithful to her lover Tirinto and being honourable to Imeneo. Meanwhile, Clomiri, who loves Imeneo, tries to woo him without success. So far, the plot is understandable. But in Act III, Rosmene fakes insanity and call up the judge of the underworld for advice, and in the end chooses duty (Imeneo) over true love (Tirinto).

According to the informative pre-performance talk by the Handel scholar Donald Burrows, the original libretto by Silvio Stampiglia was written as a royal wedding entertainment, which helps make sense of the ending. However, such an ending won’t convince modern audiences and I don’t blame the director for taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to the work. Paul Curran, the director, sets the opera in modern Greece, probably in a holiday resort on an island. Gary McCann’s simple staging, set against a backdrop evoking the sea, consists of Greek-style pillars and arches which can be moved around to various configurations. The characters are all young and well groomed and spend most of Acts I and II in the hotel spa – the arias are sung while they are having massages, facials and nail treatments. The chorus become the staff of the spa, entering with drinks and towels.

In fact, the only part of the operatic plot that remains in this production is the love triangle; thus, Act III becomes the dramatic climax where Imeneo and Tirinto demand that Rosmene make her decision. Her insanity scene is portrayed as a result of too many drinks and the ending is ambiguous. Overall it is quite entertaining and some scenes got a lot of laughs, but I found some of the antics in the arias rather tiresome and unnecessary (such as Imeneo turning endlessly in a revolving chair during Clomiri’s aria). It’s the typical malady of not trusting the drama in Handel’s music, which is a pity, as in this late work, Handel experiments with the operatic form and it is not merely a chain of recitatives and da capo arias.

The singers on the first night were all vocally very fine and had a good grasp of Handel’s musical language. The baritone Morgan Pearse played the role of Imeneo as a macho and sung with appropriate vocal power and technical assurance, especially in his Act II aria “Chi scherzo colle rose”. Rosmene was confidently sung by the soprano Filipa van Eck, looking glamorous in a swimming suit too. I felt she didn’t really show enough affection to Tirinto, but her Act III opening aria and her scena where she calls up the spirits was powerfully sung – definitely the dramatic highlight of the evening. Tirinto, the castrato role, was sung by the mezzo-soprano Annie Fredriksson (this role was sung by a countertenor is the second cast). She started out a little tentatively and her acting was not masculine enough, but she brought genuine emotion to the Act III aria “Pieno il core”. Soprano Louise Alder played the part of Clomiri with a comic touch, wooing Imeneo with sexual appeal. Her light and lyrical voice is suited to baroque repertoire and she impressed with her ornamentation in her Act 3 aria. Last but not least, bass-baritone Timothy Nelson played the part of Argenio (Clomiri’s father) with authority and impressed in his Act II aria.

In the pit, Laurence Cummings, Musical Director of the London Handel Festival, directed the London Handel Orchestra from the harpsichord with his usual indefatigable energy. The tempi were generally brisk, but the orchestra contributed fully in highlighting the emotions and the drama in the arias and the ensembles. The continuo players deserve a special mention. This production of Imeneo marks the opening of the 36th London Handel Festival, which continues until 16 April.