Handelian Pastoral Pleasures in Oxford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Il pastor fido: Soloists of New Chamber Opera, The Band of Instruments / Steven Devine (conductor/harpsichord), New College, Oxford, 3.7.2019. (CR)

Mark Chambers (Silvio) (c) Michael Burden

Director – Michael Burden

Myrtillo – Kate Semmens
Amaryllis – Barbara Cole Walton
Eurilla – Gwendoline Martin
Silvio – Mark Chambers
Dorinda – Indyana Schneider
Trieno – Patrick Keefe

The first version of Handel’s Arcadian opera Il pastor fido dates from 1712, and is the second Italian opera he produced in London, following the extraordinary success of Rinaldo in the previous year. It is not as ambitious or grand in scale as the latter, or the fully-fledged stage works he would create from 1720 with the foundation of his prestigious opera company, and so it is ideal for the intimate setting of an al fresco performance as New Chamber Opera produce each year in the verdant grounds of New College. Calling for less vocal virtuosity than many of the better-known operas, and driven by a number of arias which require relatively little instrumental accompaniment other than the continuo, Il pastor fido retains its charm when performed, as here, in reduced form by an ensemble of one or two to a part.

Musically, attention homes in, then, on Steven Devine’s often stylish direction from the harpsichord, supported by cello and double bass, and a second harpsichord, with the higher instruments providing additional colour, especially the melancholy-tinged contributions from the two oboes. The minor-key Overture (here only retaining the first couple of sections from the multi-movement original, which is like a suite) reminds us that 18th-century artistic depictions of an Arcadian idyll are often also underpinned by some sense of seriousness and tragedy. This production extends that sentiment with the interpolation of a couple of other instrumental interludes, taken from the original Overture sequence, at the beginning of each part of Act II (being divided by the interval) and familiar from Handel’s re-use in his subsequent output. In some ways the opera might be viewed as closer in aesthetic to the earlier pastoral cantatas with instrumental accompaniment that he composed in Rome, and which are even amenable to some dramatic staging of their own, as London’s Guildhall School demonstrated very recently with Aminta e Fillide. Simon Rees’s sedate and sometimes appropriately witty English translation also serves the work well in avoiding grandiloquent rhetoric, and perhaps puts the opera in close affinity with the masque Acis and Galatea (albeit minus the choruses) which Handel wrote only a few years later.

The starting point of this opera is the languishing of the region of Arcadia under the goddess Diana’s displeasure, who seeks appeasement by way of a marriage between a couple of heavenly descent, one of whom is to be the faithful shepherd of the title. The plot centres on Myrtillo, who turns out to be that shepherd, rather than the expected Silvio.  As such, Kate Semmens in that trouser role of the lead, could project with a little more authority and clarity, as she sounds brittle and sometimes only approximate in intonation, though clear enthusiasm on her part marks her out as something of the stalking horse from the beginning. Barbara Cole Walton as his beloved shepherdess, Amaryllis, sings more seamlessly and winningly, engaging more sympathy with her dilemma that she loves Myrtillo despite expectations that she be paired off with Silvio. Semmens and Walton bring off the bittersweet suspensions of their duet near the end of Act III meltingly.

Gwendoline Martin is the scheming shepherdess, Eurilla, who seeks to take advantage of the situation by thwarting Myrtillo and Amaryllis so that she may try to win the former for herself. Martin makes an effective impression in her wiles not through any musical histrionics, but rather by a sustained steadiness and focus that bespeaks quiet mischief. In striking contrast, Indyana Schneider evinces a colourful and sprightly musical personality as the shepherdess Dorinda, particularly in the exuberant and dance-like aria which Handel borrowed from Agrippina (‘Ho un non so che nel cor’) which comes off here as something like a lively folksong in its English translation. Her coquettish charm eventually works its spell on the huntsman Silvio, sung here by Mark Chambers with a mellifluous disinterest to express his initial indifference to her, but he is won round when he accidentally injures her with an arrow. Patrick Keefe makes a visually and musically striking impact on his appearance at the end as Tirenio, the high priest of Diana, in the only low-pitched part in the opera (all the other parts are in the soprano or mezzo range) as he sanctions the unions of both Myrtillo and Amaryllis, and Silvio and Dorinda to effect a happy conclusion.

With New College’s gardens serving as the Arcadian backdrop for this performance, that leaves little need for overt staging of the work. The characters sing in 18th-century costume and bring off sufficient drama through their knowing engagement with the comedy of the text, and generally clear enunciation of it. The gilt bow of Cupid on a pedestal presides over the action at one end of the performance area to remind us of what is at stake in the games of love we witness, and also to make ironic the chaste claims of the huntsman Silvio not to be interested in any one other than the goddess Diana, as he comes to be pierced with a metaphorical arrow himself. Through slick and resourceful means, then, Handel’s comparatively little-known opera retains coherence and levity.

Curtis Rogers

Further performances on 6, 9, 10, 12 & 13 July.

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