Handel’s Silla at the Leeds Opera Festival

For their 2022 Leeds Opera Festival, the enterprising Northern Opera Group have moved their principal offering to a splendid new theatre at Leeds Beckett University. This provides comfortable seating for the audience and good acoustics but also a larger performance space and excellent lighting facilities. All of which enhanced the rare outing of Handel’s Silla. Dating from 1713 and apparently given only a single performance then, it is not well known, perhaps because the composer recycled much of its music for his later, more successful, opera Amadigi di Gaula.

While Handel’s score is always interesting and, in places, brilliant, the libretto (here given in an English translation by Martin Pickard) and dramatic structure undoubtedly creak, jolting from one encounter between the protagonists to another. It is to the credit of the creative team and the singers that, notwithstanding this obstacle, the evening was such a success.

The production by Laura Attridge was particularly inventive. In the context of current political developments, it might seem an obvious ploy to present a piece about a tyrannical dictator, relying on media coverage and crowd-winning personality traits to achieve his ends, in a contemporary setting, but it was done with panache and considerable imagination. For example, during some of the solo arias, other characters and occasionally extras displayed their feelings in stylised, choreographed movements. Happily, the director was just able to avoid the risk, always present with opera seria, of too much fussy physical action, arising from fear that boredom might otherwise ensue.

The young singers, all but one female (and thus including a same-sex marriage), were remarkable for the meticulous detail of their character portrayal and their physical agility. Nor did they neglect the musical challenges posed by Handel’s arias, some of them highly inflected, display pieces; others slower and more reflective, requiring intense vocalisation. There were no weaknesses in the cast, but invidiously, I should pick out for special mention: mezzo Idunnu Münch in the title role, particularly for the resonant warmth of her lower register; Frances Gregory (Claudio) for her thrilling call for rebellion at the end of Act One; and the latter’s lover, soprano Stephanie Hershaw, for her fresh-voiced rendering of Handelian coloratura.

Behind a veil, at the rear of the stage, Ellie Slorach conducting the Eboracum Baroque, underpinned the performance with characterful instrumental support, bringing out the striking variety in the composer’s musical idiom.