HANDEL Arminio (Petrou)
Max Emanuel Cencic performs the dual role of both stage director and title-hero for this production, filmed at the Karlsruhe Handel Festival in March 2017. The Croatian countertenor, conductor George Petrou and his orchestra Armonia Atenea reprise functions from their studio recording (Decca, 5/16), and Juan Sancho also returns as the ill-fated Roman antagonist Varo (his brawny timbre is not ideal for Handel). The otherwise different cast is preferable: Lauren Snouffer is on sensational vocal form as Arminio’s wife Tusnelda, and Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk has a rounded security of tone as the young hero Sigismondo; his beloved Ramise is Handel’s least fleshed-out character but Gaia Petrone sings her arias with ripe precision. The treacherous Segeste (father/father-in-law to all non-Romans) is depicted with bullying cruelty by Pavel Kudinov. Owen Willetts demonstrates excellent technique and musicality in the small role of the Roman captain Tullio.
There are only a couple of minuscule cuts to recitatives, and the visceral theatricality of the performance masks some clumsy tropes in the staging. The pseudo-18th-century setting presents what looks like an aristocratic French household (Arminio, Tusnelda and their supernumerary children and servants) being caught as they attempt to flee from Robespierre’s thugs during the Reign of Terror; most scenes are populated by characters not supposed to be on stage, and all sorts of invented superfluous action often distorts the opera. For example, Sigismondo is wrongly portrayed as a foppish wimp, Ramise is addled by an alcoholic haze, and their interactions are depicted via drunken puking, drug-taking and gratuitous carnality. At the end of Act 2 Tusnelda is shown to be raped by Varo (the libretto and music ought to make it sufficiently clear that the Roman invader is supposed to be moved to pity because he prizes virtue – and the production’s distasteful contradiction causes his noble actions at the start of Act 3 to make very little sense). During the final chorus – not performed but mimed to the recording by the cast holding gold masks – the ‘forgiven’ Segeste is taken outside and guillotined. Copious subversions of the personalities, motivations and actions of its characters makes it incongruous that Cencic enthuses (in a short booklet interview) that Arminio is one of Handel’s finest operas. I wouldn’t go that far – with nearly 40 extant operas to choose from, perhaps it makes the top 30 by the skin of its teeth. This is not to disparage the effectiveness of some excellent top-drawer music when experienced in dramatic context – in particular, the last few scenes of Act 2 and first few numbers of Act 3 emerge as a potent trajectory that depicts the crises of its main characters emotively.