Opera Reviews
16 December 2018
Untitled Document

Love and war in Handel's Arminio

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Arminio
International Handel Festival Göttingen
May 2018

Even when dealing with high politics, Handel’s operas focus on the domestic relations of the participants, and in this Arminio is no exception. The eponymous hero routed the Romans in the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, but the storyline concentrates on the love triangles rather than the military expeditions.

In the Göttingen International Händel Festival production, the curtain rises during the overture on a tableau comprising all the characters, frozen in after-dinner attitudes. The dress is modern and the military dress of the men bears no identifying insignia. Arminio is in white dress uniform while his Roman adversary Varo wears khaki with red epaulettes. In slo-mo, they change position as a young woman comes on-stage and photographs them as groups and as individuals.

The director is Erich Sidler, director of the Deutsches Theater, Göttingen. Set designer  Dirk Becker provides a fairly simple set of grey boxes, luxury folding chairs, and functional, four-square tables. Lighting is by in-house designer Michael Lebernsieg and costumes by Renée Listerdal.

Varo is in love with Arminio’s wife, Tusnelda. Her brother Sigismondo is engaged to Arminio’s sister Ramise. Segeste, father to Tusnelda and Sigismondo, has surrendered to the Romans, and plots to hand over his son-in-law to win further favour. All is overseen by Tullio, the visiting Roman tribune. There is much toing and froing, Arminio is taken prisoner, escapes, leads the Germans to victory over Rome and the couples are restored to one another.

Cody Quattlebaum’s Segeste is, perhaps, not the most astute Germanic tribal chieftain, though he certainly thinks he is. He has a gorgeous, rich bass-baritone and for much of the first half goes around with a self-satisfied smile – then things start going wrong, when he fails to convince his son to cross over to the Romans.

Sophie Junker is a delightful Sigismondo. Her light, bright, supple voice catches his impetuosity of youth, while in the aria Posso morir, the teensiest vibrato on the ‘morir’ is perfectly judged. As his fiancée Ramise, Helen Rasker’s deep, velvety alto both contrasts and blends with Junker’s high notes in their duets.

We next see Arminio imprisoned in a lake-side forest as Segeste persuades him to surrender and Tullio (Owen Willetts) dresses him with a sash. Christopher Lowry, as Arminio, quite magnificently loses his temper at the suggestion. His singing is excellent, expressing the range of emotions Arminio works through to reach his victory at the end.

Anna Devin (Tusnelda) acts as well as sings beautifully, and she is astonished at the turn of events when her much-loved husband, anticipating death, gives her to Varo. She expresses her displeasure in an aria during which the imprisoned Arminio is revealed wearing a breastplate and be-feathered helmet, and two young people sit in front, sketching.   

Paul Hopwood’s Varo is the straight guy, declining to kill Arminio dishonourably, obeying Tullio’s orders.

It’s in the third act where the production loses its way, once Sigismondo releases Arminio from prison. Tusnelda develops a quasi-erotic fixation with a gun, both on her own and when Arminio is restored to her and it ends ambiguously, with Segeste and Tullio against the wall while she brandishes the gun.

Throughout, the playing of the FestspielOrchester Göttingen, conducted by Laurence Cummings, is delicate and precise. It’s an exquisite sound, and the various instruments duet sensitively with the voices.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo © Alciro Theodoro da Silva
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