HANDEL: Poro, Re dell’Indie

It was completed and performed in 1731, in a typically fecund
period of his life, being squeezed in between the light-hearted
“Partenope” and the rather less obviously endearing
“Ezio”. After 16 performances and a couple of quick revivals,
that was it until the German exploration of the canon in the first half of
the 20th century.

In the current boom years (as they must surely be called) for baroque
opera, “Poro” has not been at the top of the agenda for most
directors or conductors. Musically it has some fine arias and duets, but it
suffers from a clunky plot with holes as large as a Mughal elephant’s
foot. The characterisations can be laughable – literally – and
even the most intricate and melodic of Handel’s compositions cannot
save it from a kind of dramatic purgatory.

The libretto, adapted from Metastasio’s “Alessandro
nell’Indie”, centres around a love-triangle taken from an actual
event in recorded history. Alexander the Great in his march east defeats and
captures an Indian king, Poro. Poro’s beloved, Queen Cleofide of a
neighbouring Indian kingdom, seeks to help Poro by pretending to love the
invader….and thus sets in motion a web of jealousy, mistaken identity
and the usual Handelian sub-plot of secondary lovers (not in the recorded
history) caught up in the spokes of confusion that surround the main

In his day, Handel was happy to ignore any lack of dramatic cohesion
because he knew he could rely on his own brilliance, and that of his three
top-flight singers, to distract the ear and eye. The title role was created
for, and by, the legendary alto castrato Senesino, that of Alessandro for the
remarkable Italian tenor Annibale Pio Fabri, and the prima donna
role of Cleofide for Anna Strada del PÚ. And to this day the success of this
opera depends absolutely upon the quality of the singing – and the
modern day director has to rise to the considerable challenge of overcoming
the dramatic shortcomings.

This production for the London Handel Festival, featuring young opera
singers from the UK on the cusp of professional careers and a fluent,
intelligent production by Christopher Cowell, rose to both challenges with
aplomb and almost complete success. It was heartening to hear so many fine
young voices now singing this repertoire with verve and style, and showing at
least the beginnings of true stage awareness – even if nearly all badly
needed lessons in deportment. A king or general should stand and
look like a king or general, at least in a production that requires
“realistic for the age” acting.

The part of Alessandro, part-time conquering hero and (in this production
at least) full-time philosopher and marriage-guidance counsellor, was taken
by Nathan Vale. This young tenor last year won the Handel Singing Competition
from some high class opposition, and was obviously popular with the crowd at
this, final, performance in the run. His tenor is very flexible and has an
interesting darkness in the timbre that suggests that it may develop into
something rather different, given time. His control in the many, many
divisions (almost armies) of semi-quavers that his character is blessed with
was remarkable. Tonally, he was generally consistent and smooth through the
range, although he needs to learn to put more light and shade, more variation
of dynamic, into his singing in response to the text; sometimes the
machine-gun delivery quite took over from the meaning of the words
themselves. But a most satisfying performance – it would be good to
hear him in more legato material.

His rival in love and war, Poro, was sung by countertenor Christopher
Ainslie and after a slightly shaky start his voice was the one which probably
improved most during the evening’s entertainment. He has a strong,
well-supported, alto voice with no hoot or wobble and – in contrast to
Vale – had plenty of opportunity to display his natural ease and skill
with the more poignant and reflective arias that Handel wrote for the master
of that genre in the 1730’s. His acting skills were to be applauded too
– he managed to find a number of ways to continually display jealousy
without succumbing to routine.

The focus of both men’s attention as Queen Cleofide was Ruby Hughes,
a young soprano with considerable gifts. She has a warm, expressive and easy
soprano that gave promise of some weight and power to come, and of all the
singers perhaps gave the most finished performance. Articulation, intonation,
colour and dynamic were all there, and she has an attractive stage presence.
Again, like the other young singers, she could benefit from some intensive
“how to walk and stand” training, but that is easily fixed, and
no doubt will be.

The more minor roles were taken by bass Hakan Ekenas (Timagene) of whom
one wished for more in the way of arias as his voice was very appealing, and
sounded quite at home in the idiom; mezzo Madeleine Pierard (Erissena) who,
like Ainslie, grew in stature through the evening but lacked slightly in
consistency; and countertenor Andrew Pickett (Gandarte) who had expressive
moments but struggled a little with the recitatives in particular.

Although this opera tends to the London Bus style of format,
(there’s always another da capo aria coming along behind), it is
thankfully interspersed with some wonderful duets and ensembles – of
which the Act Two “Caro amico amplesso” between Poro and Cleofide
is an example. It wasn’t actually included in the Metastasio libretto
but Handel decided to transplant it here from his “Aci, Galatea e
” – and all the better for it. Ainslie and
Hughes’ work together here was delicious.

Throughout, Laurence Cummings kept the augmented London Handel Orchestra
on its toes and allowed no unnecessary lingering – a good idea with
this piece. As ever they were very stylish, and also rather less astringent
than I have heard them, with some neat work from the flute and oboes in

The production itself was in the “elegant but inexpensive”
category, the costumes of old India and some vaguely 18th military gear for
the Greeks supplying most of the vibrant colour and sparkle whilst the simple
backdrop of gauzes were lit appropriately as the story progressed. A single
hanging metre of vivid blue silk depicted the River Hidaspes, which divides
the opposing camps, and with the exception of the odd cut-out tree and
tea-chest, that was about it. But it worked. Cowell managed to get across the
idea – one which Handel espouses in the music – of a meeting of
cultures with mutual respect for each other. If there was a problem it was of
our own making, in that the incredibly understanding, generous and
fair-minded Alessandro was just too good to be true and we laughed. In 1731,
I suspect, Handel’s audience would have been impressed and satisfied
that those in power should show such noble and selfless ideals – it did
rather remind us of how cynical we have become.

© Sue Loder 2007

image_description=G. F. Handel: Poro, Re dell’Indie (Royal College of Music – 2007)
product_title=G. F. Handel: Poro, Re dell’Indie
product_by=30th London Handel Festival
Royal College of Music, 28 March 2007
product_id=ABOVE: Christopher Ainslie and Nathan Vale (Photo courtesy of RCM)