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Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira and cast [Photo by Kathy Wittman courtesy of Boston Early Music Festival]
28 Jun 2013

Händel’s First Opera at the Boston Early Music Festival

We’ll never know exactly how Handel’s first opera, Almira, Königin von Castilien, appeared at its 1705 premiere in Hamburg.

Händel’s First Opera at the Boston Early Music Festival

A review by Rebecca Schmid

Above: Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira and cast [Photo by Kathy Wittman courtesy of Boston Early Music Festival]


But a new production at the Boston Early Music Festival (seen June 14) would seem to come pretty close, particularly in an age of modernized settings and abstract aesthetics. The opera, with a somewhat longwinded libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking as adapted from the Venetian original L’Almira by Giulio Pancieri, is rarely performed, particularly stateside. While Handel’s score only hints at the sophistication of his later period, he reveals at only 19 years old a flair for melodic invention and an early ability to penetrate the characters’ emotional worlds. The story revolves around a fictional Queen, Almira, of the Spanish region Castile, who according to her father’s will must marry a relative of the Prince of Segovia, Consalvo. However, she loves her servant, Fernando, and has no interest in the Prince’s son, Osman—who for his part has no problem leaving one princess to chase another (the obscurely characterized Bellante). Following the rather abrupt arrival of another suitor, the King of Mauritania, all ends happily when it is discovered that Fernando is Consalvo’s long lost son.

Director and set designer Gilbert Blin recreates the mayhem of a love-ridden Spanish court with a touch of formal elegance. The characters assume statuesque presences while adopting gestures appropriate to the period. Almira, who receives several arias underscoring her pain and fragility, is supported by two female servants during her first number “Chi più mi piace io voglio” as she pines over her true love, while Edilia, Osman’s spurned love, is given room to focus on high-lying firework coloratura in her “Der Himmel wird straffen…” as dancers form an expressive backdrop. Less effective was Blin’s attempt to insert a dose of farce into a libretto that only scratches the surface of comedy. An appropriate atmosphere of slapstick colors the scene in which Almira mistakes an incomplete letter by Fernando as being for Edilia while Osman hides under the table, but the decision to cast the character of Tabarco—a rather inconsequential servant to Fernando—as a bumbling jester was more heavy-handed than amusing.

The score, which lasts approximately four hours in most modern editions, includes several dance sequences and interludes, as in keeping with Hamburg convention of the time. Choreography by Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante heighten a sense of authenticity with numbers such as the opening Chaconne and Sarabande which feature sword-waving warriors, as developed in collaboration with an expert in the Spanish school of classical fencing. Costumes by Anna Watkins create a throwback in time with fitted gallant fare for the men and deliciously handcrafted gowns and ruffs for the women which look straight out of a Velasquez painting. Even the rather odd scene featuring a procession of three continents—Europe, Asia and Africa (no suitors from the Americas are hanging in the wings) —stood out as one of the final act’s most engaging moments with its polished choreography and colorful uniforms.

The evening of course rested on the musical execution of the cast and orchestra, which held themselves to the highest intellectual and artistic standards. German soprano Ulrike Hofbauer brought a finely controlled, transparent voice to the title role, endowing the da capo of her throbbing aria “Geloso, tormento” with strikingly elegant ornamentation. In the role of Edilia, Amanda Forsythe was a commanding presence, evoking the princess’ emotional extremes with sharp musicality and thespian grace. Of the male singers, tenors Colin Balzer and Zachary Wilder gave stand-out performances as Fernando and Osman. Christian Immler brought and Tyler Duncan were also strong in the roles of Consalvo and Raymondo, the disguised King of Mauretania who wins Edilia to his side. Jason McStoots made the most of the bufooned Tabarco, tripping over furniture and belting out his notes, and Valerie Vinzant rounded out the cast well as Bellante, who marries Osman. Concert master Robert Mealy, who devised an edition of the score specifically for the new production, led the festival orchestra in a tight reading that nevertheless breathed with the singers, allowing for a sense of drama and spontaneity in an opera devised more easily for the laisser-faire viewing habits of the 18th-century than modern convention.

Rebecca Schmid

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