The Theater an der Wien's new Kammeroper production of Handel's pastiche opera Oreste features numbers from sixteen of the composer's pre-existing works. A time-saving practice, Handel wrote fresh recitatives and modified aria texts so that his repurposed music could support a narrative tracing the plight of Agamemnon's children on an island ruled by a paranoid tyrant. For all its apparent focus on xenophobia and Oreste's dire prospects as a refugee, Handel's opera does not address these issues in ways that speak to modern concerns. Director Kay Link and designer Olga van Wahl have thankfully avoided heavy-handed efforts to make this a lesson on the modern refugee crisis. Instead, they explore a more textured approach that fleshes out two-dimensional characters into more than a showcase of tricky arias for the company's young ensemble. The result is surprisingly strong theatrically, often musically too, not least of all as it doesn't always take the storyline too seriously, although the comic touches ultimately lead to a chilling blow.

Eric Jurenas (Oreste) and Frederikke Kampmann (Ermione) © Herwig Prammer
Eric Jurenas (Oreste) and Frederikke Kampmann (Ermione)
© Herwig Prammer

Whereas in Gluck's better-known opera about similar events the "other" is realized with stereotypical Turkish music, with historical resonance, Handel's version takes a different tack. The ruler Toante's edict to kill foreigners is motivated by his fear that Ifigenia's brother Oreste will one day kill him, as predicted by an oracle. As Toante has no clue what Oreste looks like (nor does Ifigenia), no man is spared. He remains a minor figure, whose weaknesses are profiled and effectively caricatured in this production by Matteo Loi. Handel's constellation casts a brighter spotlight on the tortured Oreste, and more so his wife Ermione, who risks all to find her beloved. Pilade is less the bosom buddy we find in Gluck, but Julian Henao Gonzalez offered an affecting "Caro amico, a morte io vo" imprisoned alongside his friend, especially in the repeated pianissimo passages. Ifigenia, head executioner, has her own partner Filotete from amongst Toante's ranks.

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

In clinical white plastic gown and gloves stained with the residue of a fresh slaughter, Ifigenia first appears with shaved head standing beside her latest victim hanging inside a body bag. Strangely cool, and superbly performed by Carolina Lippo while lending new meaning to "Bella calma", she then mechanically cleaned herself up and donned an imposing archaic headdress. Her job for the day was done. Years of living like this have clearly numbed her, and her relationship with Filotete we might understand as making the best of a lousy situation, that is until the newest stranger to wash ashore awakens something inside her. She manipulates Filotete to delay the stranger's execution. True love intervenes in the form of Frederikke Kampmann's Ermione, who arrives out of the orchestra/ocean like a female James Bond figure, in a lipstick-red vinyl diving suit. Her verve and determination are clear. Kampmann carried off a full costume change into her disguise while meeting the demands of "Io sperai di veder il tuo volto"– an exciting launch to her side of the story.

Matteo Loi (Toante) and Eric Jurenas (Oreste) © Herwig Prammer
Matteo Loi (Toante) and Eric Jurenas (Oreste)
© Herwig Prammer

As it turns out in this production, Oreste is not ultimately the ideal partner or brother. Countertenor Eric Jurenas delivered an impressive performance of the title role, with a bit of a hard-edged tone that hinted at his heartlessness. "Doppo L'horrore" was a highlight (with his wife visible through a window, imprisoned as Toante's sex slave, in vain trying to get his attention), as was the more lyrical and contrasting duet with Ermione once they were finally reunited. At the end, however, he rapidly assumes command of Toante's part bunker part submarine compound. Whereas surveillance cameras had previously eyed events onstage to humorous effect, the filming of him in his new role and the manner in which he dresses Ermione to be his obedient counterpart are alarming. Ifigenia, by contrast, grows increasingly clairvoyant and independent throughout. She rejects Filomete's declarations of love, sung ably by Florian Köfler while treated in humorous fashion (he scratches off the price tag on a gift that he gives her only for Ifigenia to pass it along to an orchestra musician). By her last aria, "Mi lagnerò, tacendo," she is again the white butcher, but sings looking penetratingly out to the audience. Her internal suffering is not an admission of futility. She sheds her forced identity and relinquishes the island, together with efforts to connect to the brother she once knew.

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

If the confines of the stage of the Kammeroper occasionally encouraged simple blocking, the production and set were anything but conceptually basic. The military/industrial frame of Olga van Wahl's set explored angles and spaces in inventive ways, while Link's production subtly played with the picture of reality to suggest Oreste's draining resilience. The Bach Consort Wien led by Rubén Dubrovsky was most convincing when underscoring the darker, brutal sides of the drama onstage.