Armonico Consort perform Too Hot to Handel at The Pleasance Theatre
The music of George Frideric Handel still infiltrates our lives today. Whether it is the incidental music in a Levi advert, or the background music in a restaurant, his melodies still remain current 253 years after his death, regardless of whether it is something that we necessarily notice.
This wacky, innovative and experimental attempt at Handel seeks to dispel and reform our perception of 18th century opera, and propel it into a unique and comic display of originality. After their previous successes, the expectation was high for Armonico Consort to deliver this extremely ambitious entanglement of 1700s music and 21st-century setting. The delicate, elegant arias seem to contradict our indulgent modern-day lifestyle in every way, making for an extremely interesting concept.
Yvette Bonner sets the scene with a rendition of Italian Bel Piacere. A man stands up in the midst of us clapping, and launching into Dall Ondoso Periglio, he awkwardly shuffles his way through aisle and audience to take his place on stage. The lyrics are permeated with modern comical clichés, and when placed alongside a counter-tenor singing an 18th-century melody, the antithesis is stark. This unexpected and humorous recitative flings us into the next scene in which Towers enacts the morning after: a hung-over, lovesick contemporary man, desperate to find the beautiful woman he heard singing.
From here on, the opera spirals out before us in a bustle of park benches, dustbins, early-morning joggers, businessmen, and mobile phones, to remind us that despite the traditional music in our ears, we are still surrounded by modernism.
It is a story attached to a propeller of love, break-ups and make-ups, mocking an operatic commotion in modern day speech. Constant reminders spring up throughout, within the props, language and costumes, that we are watching a contemporary relationship spiral, and yet the contrast of the music, continually thrusts us back to the 18th century.
Keeping true to the Baroque-style aria, repetition is kept within each expression. Therefore there are entire songs circulating around single phrases. The opera’s humour reclines in the slang and modern language, however this is not really employed enough. There were passages of over-romanticised, traditional love lyrics and continuous repetition of words such as “weeping,” that may not necessarily be found in today’s colloquial dictionary. This was a shame, because despite the array of beer cans, magazines, Special K and pizza boxes, the language seemed inconsistently spread-eagled between old and new.
The small ensemble of harpsichord, string quartet and oboes are phenomenal throughout. They are mainly accompaniment, but occasionally brought into the drama as a “CD player”. They play with sensitivity and authenticity, never deviating from the Baroque charm (except to play a couple of bars of All by myself in Bridget Jones style as Bonner dramatically breaks down on stage).
From heartache to love to heart-break, Bonner and Towers steal the stage, combatting each other in relationship and in pitch (Towers’ falsetto is everything that a modern man is not perceived to be). The extraordinary stamina each of them has, within their movement on stage, incorporated alongside pitch-perfect full-blown operatic voices, is very accomplished. The chorus that occasionally punctured the story from the sides was not always tuneful, but were a respectable device, incorporating the audience deeper into the drama, and providing some respite for the soloists.
The opera draws out the materialistic nature of the 21st century, and brings to life the arias of Handel. The storyline is trivial and sarcastic at times, largely reflecting the theatrical nature of traditional opera, but leaving little to the imagination. The music and soloists were impeccable, and the performance light for a Sunday evening, but with such a concept at their fingertips there could have been a lot more comical indulgence.