Wednesday, June 12, 2013

BEMF makes musical history

Ulrike Hofbauer as Princess Almira.  Photos: Kathy Wittman.
Classical music buffs think they know Handel.

But do they?

The official story goes that the great German composer, who already had two operas under his belt by age twenty, was musically transformed by a visit to Italy in 1706 - a sojourn which opened the tap on a stream of masterpieces, and inspired a style which would inform much, if not most, of his oeuvre.

Hence Handel's first two operas have been widely ignored - one has been lost, and the other, Almira, dismissed as juvenilia by the academic establishment.

But by the end of the Boston Early Musical Festival production of Almira,  composed in Hamburg in 1705, that conventional wisdom lies in ruins, and the professors look a little nervous. Indeed, as the curtain falls, you realize that everything you thought you knew about this genius is wrong - and that it's time for us all to get a new handle on Handel.

For Almira is hardly juvenilia, even if its libretto is risible (but as the 19-year-old composer was jobbed in, and inherited  its book, this has nothing to do with his own development). What counts, and is immediately apparent about the opera, is the stunning beauty, maturity, and endless invention of its music. Indeed, the riches in Almira are almost unbelievable - and they keep pouring forth for almost four hours (yes, like many a 19-year-old, Handel can keep performing well after those of us who have reached middle age could use a break!).  No wonder it was a hit back in 1705 - and without a doubt it belongs in the repertory today.
So what the Boston Early Music Festival has achieved in this production (which is dazzling on its own terms) is something like the gold standard of period performance. The Festival has not only unearthed a masterpiece, but a masterpiece which puts a new spin on our understanding of one of the greatest composers who ever lived.  In short, BEMF has made - or at least re-made - music history. Handel's Italian sojourn must now be re-contextualized as a stylistic gloss on a genius which had already arrived, almost fully-formed, like Venus on the half-shell, by the end of his German adolescence; and the proof positive is that Almira is studded with musical material which one immediately recognizes from re-appearances in the later operas (even the melody of "Lascia chi'o pianga" from Rinaldo, probably Handel's biggest current hit, is first heard here).

This alone is enough to make Almira an event; but as if sensing the import of the opera itself, BEMF seems to have kicked their whole game up a notch, and delivered their strongest festival production since L'incoronazione di Poppea - and perhaps their strongest production ever. This time, everything in director Gilbert Blin's vision (and I've been singing his praises for years) is superbly integrated, and the physical design reaches a new peak of sumptuousness; even the dancers and clowns feel more assured and motivated (largely thanks to a hearty comic turn by local star Jason McStoots).  And the convoluted libretto actually has its curious compensations; as the opera nears its fourth hour, we begin to understand the seductions of its start-and-stop, variety-show structure; director  Blin conjures a seamless flow of action, but seems to understand that during the recitatives, much of the original audience might have been on the move (only to return for the next ravishing aria).  In short, if you want to understand the atmosphere of early popular opera, look no further than Almira.

The ladies of Almira's court (orchestra below).

As we have come to expect of BEMF, musically the production holds to the highest standards. Soprano Ulrike Hofbauer actually replaced another singer in the title role of Princess Almira, but you wouldn't have guessed it; she sang with a poignant purity, and brought a particularly moving intensity to her heartbroken aria "Geloso tormento." Hofbauer was outshone dramatically, however, by local favorite Amanda Forsythe, who as always proved virtuosic vocally, and also happens to be one of the best actresses on the operatic stage; Forsythe tore through the furious “Der Himmel wird straffen" with such force, in fact, that she all but brought down the house.

Now I'm worried this review is going to get a little boring, because it's all repetitive praise; there were really no weak links in this cast. Tenor Colin Blazer brought a rich, subtle tone and an intelligent sensitivity to the role of Fernando, whom Almira loves but cannot marry, as he's a foundling with no title (only guess what is discovered, after literally hours of improbable complications?).  Meanwhile Zachary Wilder sang with crisp warmth - and acted with fearless comic aplomb - as the foppish Osman (a smooth operator who eventually gets his comeuppance), while baritone Christian Immler brought gravitas inflected with wit to the role of his benighted father, the prince Consalvo. I was likewise taken with the rich, erotically charged color of Tyler Duncan's Raymondo, and the sparkle of soprano Valerie Vinzant's vixenish Bellante (if you can't tell, I was basically taken with everybody).

Down in the pit, the music-making was just as exemplary: the BEMF orchestra was cohesive and expressive, shifting from the grand to the gossamer at will - all while maintaining a palpable sense of ensemble with the vocal action onstage. But then this orchestra is almost a conclave of early music superstars; particularly dazzling passages were supplied by baroque harpist Maxine Eilander, concertmaster Robert Mealy, and of course the resident geniuses at BEMF, music directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, on theorbo and baroque guitar.

One last bouquet must go to the design team. The director himself conceived the gorgeous, ever-shifting set, whose palette costume designer Anna Watkins brilliantly harnessed in what amounted to a Velázquez come to life (Almira's setting is Castile). Lenore Doxsee's lighting picked up on the same hues, and sometimes seemed to bathe the entire theatre in an amber glow. There's a sense that design decisions have run deep this time around; swordplay figured as a subtle motif throughout the piece, for instance - perhaps because Handel himself dodged injury in a duel during the period of Almira's composition (one character even sports an eyepatch - perhaps because she wasn't as lucky as Handel, we wonder?). Sigh. This kind of achievement leaves one wishing Boston could see this team try its hand at any number of operas (the gambols of McStoots brought The Magic Flute inevitably to mind); Blin is surrounded now by dazzling talent on all sides (on stage, in the pit, and backstage as well) -  indeed, sometimes I felt this triumphant production was almost as much his monument as it was Handel's.

1 comment:

  1. My only complaint is that BEMF should have given an estimated running time. I presumed that as it was early Handel and a comedic opera that it would have been over by 6:00 PM. I had lunch at Jacob Wirth before the show, so no hunger pangs. There was one lady in the audience who asked me about the running time. Turns out she was planning to catch a 7:00 PM train (B & M-not Amtrack I think) She stayed to the end, but stated she was going to have to take a 10:00 PM train.

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