Johann Quantz penned a vivid account of the opera, applauding the exquisite singing of castrato Senesino and describing in detail the contrasting musical and personalities of the sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. Indeed, Admeto was one of the operas whose reception was shaped by the public’s fascination with and construction of the rivalries among the Italian singers. Audience members who attended the performances of Admeto in the evening could read about the intrigues of their favorite singers in the various satirical pamphlets that were published in London throughout March of 1727. Despite — or perhaps because of this — Admeto proved to be sufficiently popular to remain in the repertory: it was revived in 1728 and 1731, and again in 1754 for a performance at the King’s Theater, presumably without the composer’s involvement. It was thus the last of Handel’s operas to be performed during the composer’s lifetime. Handel’s setting continued to fascinate in Germany, as it was heard repeatedly both in Braunschweig and Hamburg in the 1730s. Writing some fifty years later, Charles Burney singled out Admeto for special praise, observing that it was composed during Handel’s “greatest prosperity and English patronage,” when “the whole nation seems to have united in acknowledging his superior abilities.”
Modern commentators, however, have been far less comfortable with this work, and much of this has to do with the roots of the opera both in ancient drama and seventeenth-century Venice. The story is drawn primarily from Euripides’ brilliant, but problematic play the Alcestis, presented in Athens in 438 BC. The play concerns King Admetus, who destined to die on a certain day, was given the privilege of allowing someone else to die in his place. Both of Admetus’ parents decline to sacrifice their lives for their son, and his wife Alcestis volunteers for this dubious task. After extracting the promise from him to remain faithful to her for the rest of his life and allow no other woman into their bed or to be mother to their children, she dies. Admetus slowly realizes how worthless his life is without her; meanwhile Heracles, who has been a guest in the house, descends to the underworld to rescue Alcestis, unbeknownst to his host. In the puzzling concluding scene of the play, Heracles appears before Admetus with a veiled woman, and presents her to Admetus as a spoil won in battle. Admetus, reluctant to be unfaithful to his wife, resists Heracles’ persistent pleas that he take the woman into his home and heart. Eventually, he gives in and, clasping the woman’s hand, recognizes his wife. Thus, this is one of the Greek tragedies that — like so much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera — actually ends happily. However, the veiled Alcestis remains silent to the end of the play because — according to Heracles — Admetus is not permitted to hear her voice until she has submitted to a purification ritual. There is something marvelously unsettling about a play in one of the main characters is silent for the entire second half of the work. This indeed is a curious topic for an opera!
In 1660 the Venetian librettist Aurelio Aureli and composer Pietro Andrea Ziani became the first to turn this peculiar tale into an opera. The libretto was dedicated to the two Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg: Georg Wilhelm (1624-1705) and his younger brother Ernst August (1629-1698), the latter of which was to become the father of George I. The opera was quite popular in Italy, and was even revived in Venice for the 1669-70 carnival. However, it was the 1660 version of the opera that was brought back to Hannover and used as the basis for a new opera. In 1679 L’Alceste, adapted by court poet Ortensio Mauro with new music by the court organist Matthio Trento, was presented in the Hannoverian opera theater. It was apparently sufficiently popular to receive a second performance in 1681, with some additional revisions. The libretto from this 1681 Hannoverian version was revised Handel by either Nicola Haym or Paolo Antonio Rolli, and presented in London in 1727.
Not surprisingly, given the carnivalesque nature of Venetian opera and their taste for reinventing antiquity in ingenuous and irreverent ways, the opera is by no means a faithful setting of the Greek play. As was the practice, Aureli weaves into a varied version of the Euripidean tale a second plot line involving another woman: a Trojan princess named Antigona who had previously been betrothed to Admeto. As Aureli fancifully imagines, Admeto’s brother Trasimede, who was supposed to arrange the marriage between Admeto and Antigona, had fallen in love with Antigona’s portrait and given his brother the King a portrait of a woman of interior beauty. Admeto had thus broken off the engagement with Antigona and married the noble Alceste, who subsequently chooses to die for him. The opera opens with Admeto’s illness and Alceste’s suicide. Much of the rest of the action involves the various romantic intrigues stimulated by the sudden appearance of Antigona, who incites the desire of both Trasimede and the grief-stricken Admeto. There is no lack of the usual playful operatic conventions associated with Venetian opera. When Alceste is brought out of the Underworld, for example, she dresses as a warrior so that she might better spy upon her husband to determine whether or not he’s been faithful in her absence.
The result is a work that, though far different from Euripides’s masterwork, shares some of its ambiguity with regard to genre and the moral standing of the various characters. Admeto, who allows his wife to die in his place and feels desire for her substitute, is certainly flawed, even feminized by his courageous wife. The listener is compelled to take seriously the conventions and plot devices that seem so far from the ostensibly dignified world of Attic tragedy, such as the impenetrability of disguise or the passions that can be stirred by a portrait. The libretto set by Handel, while abbreviated and dramatically tighter than the Venetian and Hannoverian versions, retains much of the original material and plot line. Handel’s music, which is extraordinarily expressive in this opera, nonetheless captures much of the inherent ambiguity in the material — the differing personalities and attractions of the two women (thus a perfect vehicle for Cuzzoni and Bordoni), the inherent weakness effeminacy of Admeto (likewise an appropriate role for the great castrato Senesino), the likeable heroism of Ercole. Moreover, the story also provided Handel with a wonderful opportunity for spectacle. The opening scene, in which the hero is languishing in bed attacked by the knife-bearings furies, provided an opportunity for pantomimic dance, and even more spectacular is the marvelous infernal scene at the opening of Act II in which Ercole rescues Alceste from the Underworld. For those familiar with Gluck’s dignified Alceste, this work may seem an oddly incongruous mix of comedy and pathos, albeit one that arguably contains much of the inherent ambiguity in Euripides’ play.
For decades there has been only one recording of Admeto available: a quite splendid performance from 1977 (Virgin Records 5613692) directed by Alan Curtis with Il complesso barocco, featuring the countertenor René Jacobs (Admeto), Rachel Yakar (Alceste), Jill Gomez (Antigona), and James Bowman (Trasimede). One of the first baroque operas to be recorded with original instruments, it reflects the best of the historical performance movement, and we can be grateful that Virgin records has had the foresight to reissue it in CD and keep it in print all of these years. It is thus with considerable anticipation and curiosity that one approaches this new release of Handel’s Admeto, sung in English (to a fine translation by Geoffrey Dunn), directed by Sir Anthony Lewis, and recorded just nine years earlier in 1968. The cast for this recording is no less remarkable. Dame Janet Baker plays the self-sacrificing Alcestis; Admetus is sung elegantly and expressively by Maureen Lehane; Sheila Armstong is a brilliant and stylish Antigona, and the mezzo soprano Margaret Lensky provides a touching portrayal of the lovesick Thrasymedes.
Without question, this recording brings the listener into a sonic realm that is quite different from that of the 1977 recording by Alan Curtis or the performances of Handel opera that have become so popular in recent years. Indeed, the use of women rather than countertenors for the castrato roles and the larger orchestra with modern instruments (and modern pitch) reminds us of the considerable changes that baroque opera performances would undergo in the decade following this recording. Nonetheless, this is a quite stylish performance and satisfying performance. Some of the quintessential elements of baroque performance practice are certainly in place. The dotted rhythms in the overture and the dance of the furies in the Introduction to Act I are handed with considerable skill, and — while it sounds slower (in part because of the larger forces) — the actual tempo is only marginally slower than in the Curtis recording. Sheila Armstrong’s rendition of Antigona’s Act I, scene 4 aria (“Oh whence the harbour”) is sung with an elegant simplicity and is skillfully ornamented. Although the ritardando at the end of the prima parte is considerably greater than contemporary performance practice would permit, it is sung with brilliance and passion, which all too often has been banished from historical performances adhering too strictly to an abstract notion of baroque purity.
The listener will certainly note that the recitative is performed at a far slower pace and more “sung” than what we are accustomed to hearing today, particularly given perennial anxieties about the tedium of recitative for contemporary audiences. This gives each utterance a more momentous feeling, and adds to the seriousness of the performance. But Lewis does not always shy away from faster tempi. Of particular note, for example, is Maureen Lehane’s lively performance of Admetus’ Act I, scene 6 aria, “My fortune changing to reconciling,” with truly athletic ornamentation, in which the listener genuinely feels the King’s return to good health.
Perhaps the most striking element of the recording is Janet Baker’s extraordinary performance of Alcestis, the generous Queen who sacrifices her life for her husband. As is so often the case, Baker’s extraordinary artistry brings a special dignity to the characters that she portrays. This is certainly the case in this performance. Of note, for example, is her highly moving rendition Alcestis’ Act I, scene 3 aria “Dearest husband your eyelids are closing,” sung to sleeping Admetus after she decides to die in his place. The tempo here is only a few notches slower than the performance by Rachel Yakar on Alan Curtis’s recording. But the difference here is not only about tempo. Baker’s performance, with eloquent pauses between the phrases, extraordinary sense of line, and throbbing intensity in the upper register, endows Alcestis with the utmost dignity, making her status as a tragic heroine completely unambiguous. (In the seconda parte, however, the modern flute is far less effective in conjuring up the sonic world of the Elysian fields to which she refers in her aria.) Baker’s highly dignified interpretation of the role is apparent even in the less ponderous moments of the work, such as the conventional jealousy aria sung in Act II, scene 7 aria (“Hate and jealousy, beguiling and rudeness”). The result, I would suggest, is that Baker’s moving portrayal of Alcestis actually erases some of the ambiguity and paradoxically comic elements in Handel’s opera (and its various antecedents), producing a version of the piece that is more in line with eighteenth-century neoclassical notions of decorum and tragic dignity. That is not to say that the performance is in any way unfaithful to Handel’s opera or inauthentic. Rather, as with any production, it necessarily emphasizes certain elements of the drama at the expense of others, in this case presenting us with an Alcestis whose dignity and moral purity are unassailable, regardless of the plot convolutions. And while we might miss some of the fun in this performance, it brilliantly captures the profound emotions that are at stake in this story of love, loss, and redemption. Indeed, in any era in which so many performances of Handel’s operas seem designed to distract the listener and avert boredom with comic antics and often ungracious cuts, this performance provides a welcome reminder of a past era when the music was allowed to speak for itself.
The recording also includes a quite wonderful bonus — Janet Baker’s performance of Bach’s Cantata “Geist und Seele” BWV 35, performed with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Britten, recorded live on June 12, 1969. The cantata, first performed on 8 September 1726, was part of Bach’s third cycle of cantatas for Leipzig, and is best known as an adaptation of a now lost oboe concerto. This is an moving and highly dramatic performance, demonstrating not only Baker’s consummate artistry, but also, I would suggest, Britten’s sensitivity to sonority, evident in particular in the balance of the orchestral forces and the clarity of the organ obbligato.