Opera Reviews
25 February 2024
Untitled Document

Less is more in this semi-staged production

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Lucio Cornelio Silla
International Handel Festival Göttingen
May 2017

It is easy to get bogged down in the plots of Handel operas – there seems to be so much going on. Stripped down to their essentials, however, they are merely domestic dramas wrapped around in spectacle of the Game of Thrones kind.

And stripped down is what we get in Lucio Cornelio Silla in Göttingen's International Handel Festival’s semi-staged performance. The backdrop is black and singers leave the stage when not actually singing or being sung to. Yet the singers are in Johannes Ritter’s 18th century ‘Roman’ garb – and gorgeous it is. Pity that the gorgeousest garbed, Il Dio (Thomas Hansen), has such a small part.

Add in Margit Legler’s historically informed gesture and mime to an elegant production which highlights the music. With Dorothee Oberlinger directing Ensemble 1700  and the singers from the recorder, the continuo is in the capable hands of theorbo and harpsichord.

Shorn of its politics, the opera is about Silla who, though married to Metella, is after anything in a skirt – specifically Flavia (married to his confidant Lepido) and Celia (who is in love with Silla’s former comrade Claudio). Since Silla has also ambitions to be Emperor, how can this possibly end well?

Anna Dennis’s performance as Metella is the short answer. Metella is the moral centre of the opera; interrupting Silla’s moves on Celia; countermanding Silla’s death sentences on Lepido and Claudio; remaining true to her husband despite his infidelity, both political and sexual. She pleads successfully with the victors in the power struggle not to kill him in revenge. Dennis carries it off with grace and serenity, her every gesture and tilt of the head amplifying the meaning of her singing.

Dmitry Sinkovsky, as Silla, even sounds conniving, in a portrayal which brings out the unpleasantness of his character. His redeeming feature is the explosion of feathers on his head. One suspects even exile won’t stop him. By contrast, Helena Rasker’s rich, warm contralto is sincere and engaging as Claudio. His martial aria Con trompa guerriera does what it says on the tin, with the addition of a great bassoon line.

Actually, the sincerity is widely shared. When Celia (Stephanie True) sees Claudio again, having believed him dead, her shocked reaction to what she believes is a ghost is followed by a charming passage of gratification being delayed as they almost come together.

Philipp Mathmann’s Lepido tries to protect his wife from Silla – his duet with Flavia (Liliya Gaysina) is yet another to feature the bassoon – and there is gracefulness in his gesture.

The score has so many delicious moments for solo instruments to accompany or duet with the singers, allowing the instrumentalists to shine in a performance that is sold short by its programme description.  ‘Semi-staged’ scarce does justice to a production that demonstrates yet again how very much less is so much more.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo © Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen
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