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Opera Essentials: Handel’s Oreste

Our quick introduction to Gerard Jones’s blood-spattered production of Handel’s Baroque opera.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

1 November 2016 at 4.54pm | Comment on this article

The story begins…

Oreste narrates one episode from an epic Greek tragedy best known through Euripides’ plays. Oreste has murdered his mother to avenge his murdered father. Driven mad, he now seeks solace from an oracle on a remote island. He doesn’t know that the island’s murderous ruler Toante has decreed all strangers shall be executed – nor that the person forced to carry out these executions is Oreste’s long-lost sister Ifigenia. Oreste is captured, followed by his wife Ermione and friend Pilade. How shall they escape death?

Handel’s pastry-scrap pie

Oreste has a special connection to the Royal Opera House: its premiere was at Covent Garden in 1734, the first ‘new’ production Handel created in his first season at John Rich’s Covent Garden theatre. ‘New’ is in inverted commas because Oreste is a pasticcio (Italian for pastry) – a work largely constructed from pre-existing music, cherry-picked from a variety of pieces and grafted onto a new libretto (Oreste is in fact relatively unusual in that all of the music comes from one composer). While it might not meet modern notions of originality, a pasticcio was a highly efficient way for Handel to put together a work that he could easily tailor to flatter his singers – and which allowed him to pull together the best and most popular of his recent compositions.

A history of violence

Director Gerard Jones does not shy away from the violence inherent in the Orestes Greek tragedy – in fact, it’s a source of inspiration. Jones’s starting point was Ifigenia, forced against her will to sacrifice people to a cruel god. How many people has she killed? ‘You might get a sense that it’s one every few years’, says Jones, ‘but it’s much more interesting to me if she’s done 80 so far this year’. The consequences of that decision are far-reaching, and spiral out to construct a world where violence, cultic obedience and stark family divides push the small cast to the limits of human endurance. For Jones, ‘In the opera, and in the Euripides plays, you don’t get a sense of an outside world. I like the idea that it could be like a Samuel Beckett play, like Endgame, and that these could be the last six people’.

You saw them here first

The Royal Opera’s production of Oreste celebrates the vibrant young talents currently participating on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. The cast is drawn entirely from singers currently enrolled on the Programme, while the JPYA conductor James Hendry conducts an ensemble including the JPYA répétiteur Nick Fletcher on continuo, in a production directed by Jones, the current JPYA stage director. The Programme was founded in 2001 and offers a small group of opera musicians at the start of their careers the opportunity to refine their skills, drawing on the wealth of expertise on hand at the Royal Opera House. Many graduates have gone on to carve distinguished careers for themselves, with JPYA alumni including Sally Matthews and Matthew Rose.

A Londoner at heart

Oreste is the latest in The Royal Opera’s ongoing series of collaborations with venues around London to stage Baroque opera in new environments. Previous productions include Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse, and all have received rapturous critical acclaim. Oreste is The Royal Opera’s first collaboration with Wilton’s Music Hall, the world’s oldest surviving music hall, nestled in London’s historic East End. The buildings that became Wilton’s Music Hall were built in the 1690s, just a few years after Handel was born – predating the first opera house in Covent Garden by several decades. It’s a thrilling connection to the life of Handel, an adopted Londoner who had such a transformative effect on London’s musical life, in venues across the city.

Oreste runs 8–19 November 2016 at Wilton's Music Hall. Tickets are currently sold out, but returns may become available.

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