Oreste review – compelling and revolting; whether it serves Handel is another matter

Wilton’s Music Hall, London
With its gore, sexual menace and overtones of Beckett, Gerard Jones’s production will divide audiences but succeeds superbly in showcasing its young singers

“All these people are awful. That’s the starting point,” director Gerard Jones writes of Handel’s Oreste, this year’s Royal Opera production by the Jette Parker Young Artists programme. Handel’s 1734 pasticcio, its music recycled from previous works, derives from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, and deals with the endgame of the saga of the House of Atreus, as the matricide Oreste and his long-lost sister Ifigenia are reconciled and the curse is finally lifted from their murderous family. Jones turns it into a violent thriller, part theatre of cruelty, part trashy horror yarn.

Jones describes the world he evokes as “post-social”, and places it beyond the boundaries of civilisation, both geographical and moral. In a graffiti-daubed outpost, Toante (Simon Shibambu) presides over a cult of human sacrifice, where Ifigenia (Jennifer Davis) batters victims to death with a hammer and Toante’s psychotic sidekick Filotete (Gyula Nagy) bundles body parts into rubbish bags. Angela Simkin’s Oreste is a self-harming paranoiac, separated from his wife, Ermione (Vlada Borovko), his friend Pilade (Thomas Atkins) and, most crucially, his medication, which Ermione carries in her handbag.

There are overtones of Beckett, particularly of Happy Days, in Ermione’s determination to cling to the trappings of the respectability she has left behind, while the gore and sexual menace are reminiscent of such cult nasties as the Hostel films. It’s compelling and revolting by turns, but whether it serves Handel is another matter. The score suggests both deep empathy with the characters and a sense of genuine heroism pushed to its limits, all of which Jones denies his protagonists. There’s a twist at the end, which I won’t spoil, though suffice it to say it is far removed from the reconciliatory close Handel had in mind.

Musically strong – though you might want to shut your eyes … Oreste.
Musically strong – though you might want to shut your eyes … Oreste. Photograph: Clive Barda

Yet the evening’s aim is also to showcase young singers emerging through the Young Artists programme, and in this it succeeds superbly. Borovko isn’t a natural Handelian, despite a powerful, slightly metallic voice and a formidable technique – a singer one would like to hear, perhaps, in the bel canto repertory. Atkins reveals a lyric tenor of remarkable grace, though Handel’s cruelly stratospheric vocal writing occasionally tests him at the top of his upper registers. Shibambu sounds svelte, has a nice line in understated menace, and is very impressive.

Simkin and Davis, meanwhile, sing Handel with wonderful finesse. Davis’s voice gleams at the top and her coloratura is exacting in its precision. Simkin moulds phrases and virtuosity into a seamlessly expressive whole, which is often all the more affecting for its restraint. Nagy is already a singer-actor of compelling force. His voice is dark, which again might not be everyone’s taste in Handel, but you can’t help but be drawn to his dramatic commitment and the subtle detail of his characterisation. James Hendry, meanwhile, conducts the Southbank Sinfonia with stylish elegance. It’s very strong, musically, though you might want to shut your eyes.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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