Handel’s Lotario in Berne

Lotario was the first Handel opera I saw – in the early 1970s – and could have been my last. I was disconcerted by the da capo format, the sound (and appearance!) of a porky counter tenor, the banality and simplicity of the plot and the stupidity of attempting to present it in a naturalistic style. Over forty years later, and now a devotee of Handel opera, I was intrigued to discover whether a performance in Berne would erase my memories of this early experience.

It has first to be admitted that the plot and the libretto are sillier than most. For example, when the German king Lotario arrives on the scene he has fallen in love with, and decides to champion, Adelaide, the oppressed heroine, before he has even seen her; and many of the subsequent scenes are – to understate the matter – equally implausible. To overcome these problems for his production, originally seen at the Göttingen Handel Festival, Carlos Wagner took the bold step of caricaturing some of the action, extracting from it such comedy as could be found and stylising movement. So Lotario remains unreal, a deus ex machina, coming to solve the plight of power-driven, crazy mankind and Adelaide, fascinated by him, forgets her widow’s laments and dances to the perky Handelian rhythms. Their opponents, the villainous couple plotting to usurp the Italian throne, are presented as moth-eaten dishevelled aristocrats, naïve but also brutal in their treatment of others.

A clever and persuasive approach. The trouble was, however, that it could not be sustained coherently and consistently throughout a long evening. Already in Act Two the production began to lose its grip. The scene involving a succession of foiled suicide attempts, for example, failed to make its dramatic point: it was unclear whether we were intended to laugh or to cry. And after the interval one could sense that the audience were losing interest in the stage proceedings. A pity because things had begun so well. Nor was the staging helped by the ugly, cluttered decors designed by Rifail Ajdarpasic, the ruins of a palace strewn with relics of military glory and with wall hangings obscured by intrusive scaffolding.

What then of the music? Handel’s score is predictably fine, containing some wonderful arias, the highlight being an extraordinary piece for Adelaide at the end of Act One, sung here with bravura and purity of tone by Marie Lys. Among the other soloists, Sophie Rennert in the title role impressed with her masculine swagger as well as the confident scaling of the Handelian heights and warm resonant descents into the lows. Ursula Hesse von der Steinen was memorable as the tyrannical husband-humiliating Matilde, though vocally she tired towards the end. As her weakling son, the sweet-voiced counter tenor Oscar Verhaar made a notable contribution.

The orchestral accompaniments call for energetic playing but also finesse and Hans Christoph Bünger, taking over the musical direction from Christian Curnyn who had prepared the performance series, had all the necessary qualities to bring out the best from the Berne Symphony Orchestra. He had manifestly internalised the pulse and phrasing of Handel’s score and his exuberance enhanced one’s involvement. Then, was it my imagination or was some of the élan and enthusiasm missing from his direction after the interval as perhaps he sensed that the performance was going astray?

It is heartening when an indifferent first half is superseded by something much better; if the reverse occurs, one leaves the theatre in a dispirited mood.