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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Opera Review: In the Realms of Sorrow

Part of this year’s London Handel Festival, and performed at and in partnership with Stone Nest on Shaftsbury Avenue, In the Realms of Sorrow stakes an early claim to being opera’s most exciting production of 2023.

Made from the fragments of four of Handel’s cantatas, with additional composition by soprano, composer and cellist Héloïse Werner, the show sees LHF’s renowned Musical Director Laurence Cummings (Academy of Ancient Music, Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música) reuniting with award-winning director Adele Thomas (RoH/INO’s Bajazet, RoH/Opernhaus Zurich’s Il Trovatore) to create a work of art that spits in the eye of current events.

With a talented, leering orchestra that performs en promenade, using every square foot of the space (including its verticality) the show smoulders with Weimar Expressionism, albeit filtered through the black leather and shiny polyester of modern metropolitan Gothic: imagine if Die Antwoord made music with theorbos and harpsichords, or Hugo Boss came back from the dead having styled a choir of angels, and you might be getting close.

Stone Nest makes a perfect venue for the show, with the crumbling plaster and chipped paint of what was once Charing Cross Chapel feeling like an abandoned air raid shelter or haunted tomb; staged in the round, with audiences sat on four square edges and around a raised gallery beneath a filth-caked umbrella dome, the space doubles for a hazy purgatory through which Thomas’ past collaborator James Laing’s stalks.

Smoking a cigar and evoking Thin White Duke-era David Bowie, Laing’s task is to guide us through four tales of jilted, tragic love – something which he evidently relishes. Part-vicious sardonic, part ghoul, he grins like Bill and Ted’s Death at times, yet sings with a beauty that pauses time.

The opera world is rich with counter-tenors, and while names like Luna, Jaroussky or Scholl might serve as international draws, In the Realms of Sorrow sees Laing and his castmate Patrick Terry both deliver performances of the highest calibre – both vocally and physically. One of the hardest jobs in music, these heroic performers add a layer of sadomasochism and abject queerness to proceedings that is simultaneously very brave and achingly painful.

Indeed, one of the most special things about this opera is its physicality. Things happen in it that hurt, and Emma Woods’ choreography verges on the brutal. It also verges on burlesque, with, for example, Terry’s heartbroken Chlori picked up, turned upside-down, grappled and savagely manhandled by New Adventures/Ballet Rambert alumnus Jonathon Luke Baker.

During the tone-setting opening quarter of the show, Il delirio amoroso, Terry is a revelation. Heart-broken yet singularly unable to abandon his lover, Baker’s Tyrsi, he follows him into the afterlife, pulling himself apart, unable to surrender to Tyrsi’s brutality or abandon the hope of his love. Their duel is impossibly beautiful, representing modern opera at its grittiest and best.

Next, rising star and soprano to watch Nardus Williams steps out of the firmament for Armida abbandonata; here the ever-excellent Baker is recast as a wordless Rinaldo fleeing the eponymous Saracen sorceress.

Williams is likewise relentless in her pursuit, leaning over the gallery railing, almost clambering out onto pillars, raising storms and summoning sea creatures with such power and demonstrative heft it felt demons of the deep might actually rise.

While Williams may be one of the most exciting young voices in opera, the production supercharges her performance, with surtitles that shift, expand, fragment and judder through strobing, haze-filled air. It’s ground-trembling stuff, and I think I might have seen some of Stone Nest’s plaster shifting.

Speaking of surtitles, it may be a small thing, but very rarely does anyone do anything interesting with them. In the Realms of Sorrow represents a masterclass in this arena. At times lyrics tripped the light fantastic, spiralling off in rainbow prisms. At others they grew as tall and menacing as Orwellian propaganda messages. Lighting and Video associates Rarah Readman and Ola Przytula deserve special praise for making one of opera’s most staid and vanilla features genuinely thrilling, and I hope opera houses and companies the world over learn from what they did for this show.

After the interval, Baker returns again as Leandro, this time a corpse despaired over by Soraya Mafi’s Ero. Possibly the musically strongest of the four quarters, Mafi’s voice and vulnerability in this section were all the more powerful due to the modesty of their presentation. Wearing little more than a slip and scuffed trainers, time and again Ero managed to sing and part-puppeteer her lover back to life, with Baker time and again collapsing like a marionette on the far side of a drug overdose. Macabre, certainly, and funny, too, but through this juxtaposition of clowning and aching song the sadness of the section grew all the more poignant, compelling and rich.

Lastly, in what has to be one of the most riveting pieces of stagecraft in recent memory, Claire Booth takes to the stage for Agrippina condotta a morire. Beginning bound and blindfolded, dressed almost as a waxwork composite of Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich, we first see her sexually assaulted by Baker as a feather-headdressed Nero, her son. Then we see her descend from the height of crafted, curated beauty into a writhing, screaming mess of human flesh, frailty and despair.

Booth is a performer of international renown, and those familiar with her collaborations with video director Netia Jones will attest to her fearlessness. To say that her performance of Agrippina condotta a morire was a showstopper barely does it justice.

Seeing her physical disintegration, her roving madness, her muscular yet delicate love and rage, was profoundly moving. As she strips away films of clothing, revealing layers of shapewear, her real hair, her taped body, the chicken fillets reinforcing her bust, we see humanity. A tremendous touch was her water-based lipstick, which dripped and dribbled like the bright pink blood of her psychic wounds. Costume Supervisor Alice Lessing, along with Rosie Gibbons on wardrobe and Tom Shaw and Rachel Porter on makeup, all ought to be paraded through the West End as champions.

Naturally, the playing throughout was also outstanding. People expect nothing less from Cummings, who menaced his harpsichord with tenderness and skill. Similarly, Rosie Moon on double-bass was a blissfully sadistic player, slapping her instrument for percussion as well as setting a glowering undertone for her peers. While Oonagh Lee stole the show early on, friskily duelling with fellow oboe player Joel Raymond and showing star power, undoubtedly Roderigo Checa had the most opportunities to show off.

Roving with his violin throughout the space, Checa added an awful lot to the opera’s other explosions of physical and vocal drama. Indeed, if Nike aren’t sponsoring him to wear those sneakers, someone is missing a trick.

Elsewhere, it was joyful to see Lucia Capellaro play, not least when she lifted her cello and engaged it horizontally, at times locking eyes with a roving Jonas Nordberg on theorbo. Similarly excellent and likewise everywhere, while Marguerite Wassermann and Charlotte Fairbairn perhaps had less-showy duties on second violin and viola respectively, it was only through their work that Nordberg, Capellaro, Checa and Lee could harry the other performers and offer audiences such a show. A few slipped notes and misplays felt perfectly apropos, perhaps even deliberate, for a fragmented show in a half-ruined place about human beings coming to pieces.

By pushing musicians out into the theatrical space, using them as voiceless actors and making the most of each dynamic, In the Realms of Sorrow became more than just an opera. This was a maelstrom of art, bludgeoning, breath-taking and disturbing. It rippled with black lightning, poured tears of acid rain, echoed with the thunder of 21st century pain, and if you can buy, beg, borrow or steal a ticket then you should.

It’s often said that the best art is made under right wing governments. Perhaps this is painfully true. But as the arts in the UK are cut and assailed, denigrated and abused, Terry’s bleach-blonde Chlori, Williams’ sequin-scaled Armida, Mafi’s necrophiliac Ero and Booth’s broken Agrippina all serve as potent metaphors for us all: we love the ones who hurt us, our nations as much as our children or our paramours.

I challenge you to find a more modern reminder of this ancient truth than In the Realms of Sorrow.

Book tickets for In the Realm of Sorrow here.
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