Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Boston Baroque conquers Gaula

Ava Pine schemes in Amadigi di Gaula (photo by Julian Bullitt).

Here days have passed and I still haven't written at length about Boston Baroque's Amadigi di Gaula. Which doesn't mean I wasn't crazy about it; indeed, I felt that along with BLO's Don Giovanni and BEMF's L'incoronazione di Poppea, Amadigi represented the year's best in local opera performance. Some of my enthusiasm, perhaps, came from that happy surprise that ensues when an unknown work proves remarkable. And trust me, Amadigi is studded with wonderful arias, and adventurous orchestration, too (along with such a rarity for Handel as two separate duets). Why it has fallen from the repertory is indeed a mystery (this was probably the piece's Boston premiere). It's true the libretto is a little more repetitive than most - it's essentially one variation after another on a single romantic triangle. But, uh, how to put this - does anyone go to Handel for the libretti? Anyone? Anyone? Alrighty then.

At any rate, the weakness of the Amadigi libretto was outweighed by the surprising strength of the acting at Boston Baroque. Indeed, it's rare that any opera (particularly a semi-staged one) is as dramatically striking as it is musically satisfying, but this was definitely the case here. To tell true, I wasn't wild about Leah Wool's acting of the title role (though male, Amadigi's arias are written for a mezzo - just about the whole opera is for treble voices), mostly because Wool at first seemed more bluff than dashing. But once she reached the arms of her beloved, Oriana (Mary Wilson), Wool melted convincingly - but then who wouldn't, as Wilson had both a gloriously rich soprano and a warm-yet-principled presence at her command.

Their love was complicated, of course, by two unwanted pursuers: the witch Melissa (Ava Pine), vindictively obsessed with Amadigi, and the prince Dardano (countertenor Matthew White), burdened with a sad jones for Oriana. White brought an intriguingly plaintive timbre to his arias, and was dramatically compelling throughout; but it was Pine who all but lit up the stage. Dressed in a skin-tight black sheath that might have come off a serpent, her Melissa was a broken-hearted stalker with whose obvious pain we could sympathize, and Pine pulled off one acting coup after another while unleashing a soprano of admirable force and intense color; this was easily one of the strongest operatic performances of the Boston year.

Praise must also go to director Paul Peers, who devised a series of compelling abstract scenarios on the empty concert stage (and sometimes on the balcony), and of course conductor Martin Pearlman, who kept up the pace while drawing sensitive playing from his ensemble. All in all, this was a night both to savor and remember.

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