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Original illustration by Tomi Um for operamission
08 Jun 2012

Almira, operamission

There are many different ways to analyze the health of New York City. My personal measurements judge the town thus: How many aspiring artsy kids are forced to share a single apartment in an outer borough while they “find themselves” and how many small but immensely able opera companies are functional at any given time.

G. F. Händel: Almira, Königin von Kastilien (Almira, Queen of Castile), HWV 1

Almira: Christy Lombardozzi; Edilia: Nell Snaidas; Bellante: Kristen Plumley; Consalvo: Mark Risinger; Osman: Keith Jameson; Fernando: Michael Weyandt; Raymondo: David Kravitz; Tabaco: Karim Sulayman. Presented by operamission at the Gershwin Hotel in New York with the Operamission Handel Band, conducted by Jennifer Peterson. Performance of May 29.

Above: Original illustration by Tomi Um for operamission

Photos by Mallury Patrick Pollard courtesy of operamission


Almira041.gifChristy Lombardozzi as Almira

That latter stat defies all the rest just now: Small opera companies are thriving. My post-Met-season has included Holst, Telemann, Richard Strauss and De Falla; Rossini, Gay, Rachmaninoff, Chabrier and Saint-Saëns lurk in my near future; and now the American professional premiere of Handel’s tyro effort, Almira (1705), has been presented by a youthful group called operamission, providing four hours of pleasure for any Handelian who chanced through the Flatiron District.

Almira was composed by the 19-year-old Saxon who had not yet gone to Italy to have his rough edges planed, for Hamburg’s Theater am Gänsemarkt, the largest and grandest private opera house in Northern Europe, which for a quarter century had been importing works by the likes of Lully, Cavalli and Steffani and “improving” them to the taste of that rich and sophisticated imperial free city, no egotistical royal court being around to interfere. An entirely homegrown school of opera-making had arisen to exploit this setting. Among its charms was a rear wall that could be opened after the celebratory conclusion of a performance for a fireworks display on the River Elbe.

Almira099.gifMichael Weyandt as Fernando

Some Gänsemarkt operas (such as Telemann’s Orpheus, recently given its New York premiere by the City Opera) mixed two or three languages, and the local style was also mongrel in the extreme. There was, if operamission’s Almira is exemplary, far less egotism, less of artists so confident of audience adulation that they stepped out of character to over-ornament the dramatic event. That is the direction opera took in Italy (and, under Handel’s auspices, would move in England), but it had not come to Hamburg. The stories enacted were long and foolish, but the pace was swift, and young Handel was already a tunesmith to rank with the best. The merchants of Hamburg got their money’s worth and so, three hundred years later, did we.

Another local peculiarity in Hamburg was the absence of the Italian custom of using castrati. Heroes and villains were generally sung by tenors and basses, which made the operas a little easier for later generations to perform and to accept—the program for this Almira calls it “the only Handel opera staged during the nineteenth century.” (In Hamburg and Leipzig, “severely truncated.”) Today, however, the lack of male altos or women in trousers may be a hard for the contemporary audience for baroque opera to swallow when attending Almira. Sorry: Tenors and basses is what we got here, though they are required to be considerably more flexible than the male singers of the nineteenth century would be.

Almira029.gifKeith Jameson as Osman and Nell Snaidas as Edilia

Almira, Königin von Kastilien (Almira, Queen of Castile) mixes languages (German and Italian—the libretto is a bit of a hodgepodge) and styles with bits of plot derived from many sources. Winton Dean, the grand authority on Handel’s operas, sounds impatient with it in his study of Handel’s operatic oeuvre, condemning him for not deepening the characters or straightening out the story with its coincidences and contingencies, letters gone awry, confessions overheard and misunderstood. To the lover of Handel’s mature output, however, the score is frankly astonishing for what it does achieve, the way the young genius contrasts his sets of rival lovers in their rival clichés, the way the grandeur demanded by audiences in wealthy Hamburg was worked into the story in procession and dance, the way the manners of the different source schools (French, Italian, German) were maneuvered to create a more or less seamless piece of theater and, most of all, the flood of melody already at his command. To expect the more personal maturity of his greatest works would be churlish. Almira is a delight on its own terms, and its own terms (minus gaudy costumes and sets) are how operamission takes it.

The lobby of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street (right beside the Sex Museum, you can’t miss it) is a tall room. The 21-piece band of original instruments, recorders, valveless horns, baroque bassoon, cello, harpsichord—was that a viola da gamba joining in the recits?—is stuck at one end of the L-shaped playing space, which permits double doors to open for grand entrances, and there’s some room for court dances by a tiny corps de ballet.

Almira100.gifKeith Jameson as Osman

A single lobby pillar did duty as a tree, an arras, all sorts of concealing partition. The audience had the remainder of the room, so some head-swiveling to follow the action was required. Not the least of the pleasures of the occasion was the absence of titles of any kind. A detailed synopsis in the program included the texts of all the arias (both sung and translation) and the lights were up (as in Handel’s day) so that they could be read, but comprehension of the complicated and unfamiliar plot was left to the expressiveness and acting chops of the singers. None of them had any trouble getting the story across. Free of blinking and distracting translations, we could revel in music and its performance. I do hope operamission retains this tradition.

In brief, Almira (Christy Lombardozzi), newly-crowned Queen of Castile, is in search of a husband. She inclines towards the foundling Fernando (Michael Weyandt) who is, in fact, in love with her, but for typical libretto reasons she thinks he’s in love with her cousin Edilia (Nell Snaidas). This confusion is encouraged by underhanded Osman (Keith Jameson, whom you may recall as the Apprentice in the Met’s recent Billy Budd), who is Fernando’s foster brother and has been flirting with Edilia himself, all of which goes by the board when he hopes to attain the crown matrimonial. His father, the regent Consalvo (Mark Risinger), hopes to marry the queen off to a man of proper birth, that is, not Fernando. That would be more than enough plot for the mature Handel (when he was hiring imported Italian singers for his own company), but on the Gänsemarkt’s thaler, he added Bellante (Kristen Plumley), who is also in love with Osman and therefore spurns Consalvo’s antiquated flirtations, and a Mauretanian king, Raymondo (David Kravitz), who hopes to woo Almira but, happily, falls for Edilia instead. All we need for denouement is the discovery that Fernando is of noble birth, a long-lost son of Consalvo’s, and all three couples may marry—and do.

Almira082.gifMark Risinger as Consalvo and Christy Lombardozzi as Almira

These regal types, honorable or otherwise, are served by Tabarco (Karim Sulayman). The sarcastic servant is another Gänsemarkt tradition (as those who attended Conradi’s Ariadne in Boston will recall); he extols gold and drink, doubts everyone’s high-flown sentiments, cracks wise about insincere young lovers and ridiculous old ones, attempts blackmail and information leakage, and generally cuts the exalted brew. His lineage is actually very exalted, for he traces his ancestry to Pseudolus, Mosca, Juliet’s Nurse, Hamlet’s gravediggers and Sancho Panza, and his operatic descent is grander still: Mozart’s Leporello and Papageno, the Sacristan in Tosca and the Noctambulist in Louise. We need him to remind us (and the other characters) what planet we live on. It isn’t just highfalutin planet opera, or not all the time.

To find a singer or two worthy of attention and able in practice in one of these small companies is nothing unusual; it is one of the joys of going to them. To find eight excellent singers in eight wide-ranging roles in such a company is astonishing, but that was the case with operamission's Almira.

There are three sopranos here, you will note, and (like all characters in opera seria), they are obliged to offer arias of a variety of states of mind: yearning, wrath, flirtation, outrage, tragic renunciation. Operamission’s music director, Jennifer Peterson, who conducted from the harpsichord, figured out how to vary the voices nicely, from Lombardozzi’s long, pure lines of queenly suffering to Snaidas’s high, spiky staccati of merriment or anger and Plumley’s gracious or dubious sentiments. Considering how interchangeable were their feelings (each lady feels amorously misused by someone or other), they individuated nicely.

Almira127.gifDavid Kravitz as Raymondo and Nell Snaidas as Edilia

Square-shouldered and handsome, Michael Weyandt ably deployed his agile baritone to proper stone-faced Dudley Do-Right effect as Fernando, the all-but-uncomplaining (ten arias) object of everybody’s plots and betrayals. Keith Jameson, as his devious brother Osman, had much more fun, skulking and conniving. His tenor seems a bit grainy for leading lover roles in any case, and his stage personality thrives on shifty characters. Mark Risinger sang the grandee Consalvo with poise and dignity but did not quite convince as a despairing lover. David Kravitz’s Raymondo was all sly politician until Edilia stole his heart, when his lyric bass found a warmer element. Karim Sulayman, who specializes in wisecracking servants (I’ve seen him with Vertical Players and Opera Lafayette) had more fun than anybody; plot shenanigans never unsettle his enjoyable light bass. I’m not sure which I’d look forward to more: His Leporello or his Osmin (in Seraglio).

The staging by Jeff Caldwell made witty use of an awkwardly shaped stage and less than grandiose forces to keep us on the proper page of the plot and happy with its impressive length. This was a performance without a single mis-cast singer or actor in eight long roles, which makes one eager to hear whatever operamission comes up with.

Almira121.gifKarim Sulayman as Tabaco

Due perhaps to an audience so intent that it withheld applause until the end of the evening — or perhaps to an absence of da capo repeats with their self-glorifying fireworks — the long score moved swiftly and delightfully through a lengthy score to a joyful conclusion.

John Yohalem

Click here for the program for this production.

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