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Handel in Heaven

05/16/2001 -  and 18 May 2001
George Frideric Handel: Chlori, Tirsi and Fileno
Simon Baker (Tirsi), Zoë Todd (Chlori), Kathryn McCusker (Fileno)
Timothy Redmond (conductor), Lee Blakely (director)

Handel wrote the pastoral cantata Chlori, Tirsi and Fileno in Rome in 1707, probably for a non-religious jolly at the home of his local patron, the Marquis Ruspoli. He was twenty two at the time, and his portfolio consisted of a bundle of liturgical works and a couple of oratorios, produced for Italian patrons. He might have turned into an Italian Bach, and the unquestionably cheeky Chlori could have been the model for equivalent of Bach's secular cantatas. Handel, though, had already written a commercial opera for Hamburg, and within the next two years would produce two more, for Florence and Venice. Donald Burrows, in a programme note for the Covent Garden Festival production warns against looking in Chlori for foreshadowing of opera to come; but there are action-advancing recitatives, ritornellos, da capo arias and act-closing ensembles, as well as a fair amount of musical material that Handel recycled in later operas.

The main difference between Chlori and the operas, of course, is that pastoral is by definition not "serious". The generic countryfolk of the title have no pretensions to mythic or historic stature. Away from the court and great events, they have only love and its vicissitudes to worry about. (Their flocks and herds are a decorative fiction. There is no foot-and-mouth in Arcadia.) And the music is correspondingly sensual. So a London club, normally populated by randy young hedonists, is a pretty good place for a performance.

Heaven, built into two of the arches under Charing Cross station, turns out to be a felicitous venue in several ways. Although the club has probably never had unamplified music before, the main room is a shallowly arched shoebox and has pretty good acoustics that were very helpful to the singers. (The side arches leading to the bar of course affect things, and also let in chat from the bar.) This production claimed to be a promenade, but the audience just about fitted in standing, and there wasn't quite enough space to move a couple of large props around the floor. It was all quite relaxed, buzzy and club-like, if quieter. The very attractive young singers, plus three boy dancers, in stressed evening dress fitted in perfectly as they moved about the space, using mainly the balcony and a stage at one end behind the small orchestra. Perhaps a few more conventional Handelians in the audience felt a bit uncomfortable - there was virtually nowhere to sit - but overall, the result was wonderfully inclusive and engaging.

The action of the cantata was neatly transferred, with a couple of twitches to the English translation, to a vaguely defined urban time-out space. The orchestra played palm-court muzak as the audience came in, and Tirsi and Fileno both wore waiters' aprons. But of course, what happens has happened in many a club: a young woman encourages and claims to love two men, who each experience ecstasy and despair until they get sick of it and decide they prefer each other's company to hers. Classical shepherds are bisexual, the Catholic church was institutionally misogynist and Chlori was probably originally performed by three castratos, so it's anybody's guess what this meant for the original audience. But Handel initially gave Tirsi and Fileno a duet in which they pledge their love for each other, then replaced it with a trio about the generic joys and pains of love, which suggests some degree of ideological, and perhaps erotic, uncertainty. In this production, which had a mezzo Fileno, the resulting couple was one of each. That might have amplified or spoilt the joke depending on your personal susceptibility and your grasp of baroque opera conventions.

The orchestra was nifty, finding the lyricism and delicacy in the score, clear if not loud at floor level. The singers were all delightful. Zoë Todd as Chlori was a baby diva, just the right side of camp and slightly throaty. Kathryn McCusker as Fileno was dark, lovely and melancholy, and often very moving. And Simon Baker as Tirsi was pale and interesting in an Ian-Bostridge sort of way, though rather gaucher. His voice isn't very big, but his singing was impressive, with some brilliant bravura runs. He had a wobbly moment inflicted on him by the translation: the simile aria Son come quel nocchiero emerged as I feel like a sailor, which not only missed the point of a simile but also elicited raucous laughter from some sections of the audience. Presumably, he hadn't thought of it before, and for a few seconds looked as if he might succumb to giggles or embarrassment. But he didn't lose a note.

H.E. Elsom



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