The 400-seat Britten Theatre of the Royal College of Music is an excellent venue for Handel's Tolomeo. There is no chorus in this opera; the five solo singers and orchestra have to convey the drama.
Although the story itself is a bit of a let-down at the end – it is hard to see the reason for the forgiveness and happy ending all of a sudden – the intimate venue and English Touring Opera's production made the plot coherent, credible and enjoyable.
The persecuted Tolomeo (son of Cleopatra of Egypt) and his wife Seleuce suffer in exile all way through the opera. Araspe (ruler of Cyprus) desires Seleuce and makes trouble for the faithful couple, while Elisa (sister of Araspe) is cross because Tolomeo does not return her love. Alessandro is sent to murder his brother Tolomeo but decides not to; in the meantime he falls in love, in vain, with Elisa. This is not the story-line which one would rush to the theatre for, but James Convay's imaginative and sensitive direction creates exciting drama as well as insightful nuances for the relationships between the protagonists.
The stage design is economical but meaningful. For instance, the planks of the broken pier serve as hiding place, gallows, and royal throne. The bleakness of the set and that of most of the costumes is integral to Convay's dramatic concept.
In the title role counter-tenor Clint van der Linde gave an outstanding performance. For me, his musicality was one of the evening's highlights. The most beautiful moments of the evening included his solo arias and duets with Katherine Manley (Seleuce), who also excelled. Both singers were ideally cast vocally and dramatically. Rachel Nicholls (Elisa) was superb in characterisation and vocal virtuosity, but there was occasional shrillness in some of her (probably very difficult) top notes and at times her vibrato was just a touch out of style. Baritone Neil Baker (Araspe) was virtuoso and suitably scary, but I could not help wondering if a heavier bass voice would have suited the part better. Counter-tenor James Laing (Alessandro) was convincing from every aspect.
Although he had already worked with the company, this evening represented conductor John Andrews' London debut with the English Touring Opera. His knowledge of style, his ability to shape the structure and his attention to details made for an exciting evening.
The orchestra was in fine form and their recorder players delighted with some particularly sensitive playing.
Make sure to catch Tolomeo on ETO's forthcoming UK tour.
By Agnes Kory