The centerpiece for this year’s Boston Early Music Festival is, no doubt, the authentically staged first opera and first published work of (then) Georg Friedrich Händel, his Almira, Königin von Kastilien oder Der in Krohnen erlangte Glückswechsel (The Change of Fortune Gained with a Crown). First performed in Hamburg in January 1705, it will be receiving its Boston premiere at the Cutler Majestic on June 9th in a production running through June 16th in Boston before continuing at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington from June 21st to the 23rd.
BMInt recently spoke about the production with eminent historian, stage director and designer Gilbert Blin.
BMInt: How many operas have you directed for BEMF?
Gilbert Blin: I’ve directed four major ones. This is number five. So it started with a Lully work, because being French, it was a plus to direct in my mother tongue., that’s how I got called the first time: BEMF was doing a major work of Lully in 2001, Thésée and, in 2007, Psyché, two of the masterpieces of that master. Then later I came back for Monteverdi’s Poppea and Steffani’s Niobe.
So why Handel and why Almira?
In 2009, in the context of our Chamber Opera Series, BEMF presented Handel’s Acis and Galatea. It was a great hit that we revived and toured around this country from Seattle to New York with great success in 2011. The audience felt we had a distinct personal take on Handel and we thought it would be great to offer another Handel piece, one that is almost never performed. So we chose Almira, his very first opera. It was also a logical connection with the fact that Almira was created in Hamburg and our artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs always add some interest for the Hamburg repertoire at the very beginning of the late 17th-century and the early 18th-century. (The Festival already did two pieces from the Hamburg repertoire.) Plus, BEMF was looking for an opera that was very interesting and challenging for the audience here.
Most people realize that Handel was Händel before he dropped the umlaut, but fewer realize that he wrote operas in German.
You are absolutely right and that’s one of the elements which make the piece and our production of special interest. He wrote Almira when he was 19 years old, absolutely amazing! It’s his opus 1. It’s his very first composition, or at least identified composition. And he wrote a full opera with more than 70 musical numbers as his first composition. He received the commission by chance as, in fact, he replaced someone. It’s often like that, that when you are young: you get your first major breakthrough because someone else can’t do something! So he wrote this opera while he was playing in the orchestra of Hamburg, and the musical director of the time, Keiser, had to leave town because he received a very important commission somewhere else in Germany. So they had a gap in their season but Handel was apparently fully up to composing a new piece for the orchestra and singers of Hamburg.
Is it considered a youthful work? Or is this mature Handel?
It has all the vitality and creativity of youth, but artistically it’s the full mature Handel because his understanding of musical drama was already fully developed. There is richness of arias, which obviously you find later in his Italian works and his later major choral pieces. But he also had composed for Almira some wonderful dance music and among them the very famous sarabande which later would become one of his major hits which he will develop as an aria in oratorio and Italian opera. [hums] Lascia ch’io pianga is a very famous tune, and he is so convinced that it’s a great song that he even uses it twice in Almira !
Now Winton Dean called the Hamburg operas of this period “ungainly mixtures of heroic attitudes, elaborate spectacle including ballet and broad farce,” is that a fair characterization of Almira?
It’s absolutely fair, although, Dean was a little hard on Almira because he was of course more inclined to look at it from the point of view of the later Italian pieces and of course the operas for London. The mix of different spectacular elements which span from the influence of the French repertoire really makes the piece very distinctive in terms of the atmosphere and the music. He also adds some comedic touches which create spectacular and entertaining moments. It is a work more diverse in its inspiration than his later operas compositions which one could say is slightly stiffer. Teseo which Handel wrote for London in 1713 is an example of this type of later dramaturgy. I directed a production in 2007 and the work has the monumental proportions of classical drama. [here]
As opera librettos go, how does Almira rate?
I thought first that it was a strange libretto because, like other people I first looked at it thinking it was a serious story: most Handel specialists also missed the point! I took me a long time to understand the true nature of the work. But after my comparing Almira with other musical dramas of the period, the work emerged as a comedy. It’s a life story, a little in the spirit of Cosi Fan Tutte of Da Ponte/Mozart for example. It’s already a perfect frame for psychological analysis and takes on what’s going on in terms of the affects and feelings of the characters. But the general wisdom of the piece is that it’s quite a light one in which all end well. It adds these components of almost a Shakespearean comedy with serious moments of observation and psychological investigation. It also takes a lot from the “cloak and daggers” comedies of the Spanish Golden Age: Characters reflect on what’s going on in their lives but the exchanges and the communication are often of a funny color.
Do we know much about the original staging? And are you as a modern director trying to reproduce it for BEMF?
Of course we are respecting the look of it and we have been searching for months through models and designs of the original designer of Hamburg. We also have been looking over costume designs of the period in Germany, and found inspiration in prints and painting. But what’s more important is all the references which were in the air at the moment, 1704 and 1705 which when they are put in relation with the libretto are already giving a new understanding of the story and what’s relevant in the libretto. So it’s definitely a period performance show with baroque sets and costumes, dance and gesture in the style of Hamburg of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But the question about period staging is that it’s not only to be considered from the external look of it. So the show is also relates very much to what the audience of the Hamburg opera was understanding and was experiencing at the time. For example the reference with Spain was already very important factor due to the war of the Spanish Succession which was then raging in Europe at the time. Far from the classical story of Roman or Greek which are the sources of many opera of Hamburg, Almira is taking place in a Spanish setting which is already a rarity as it’s not very common in Baroque Opera of the late 17th-century: it is a very important point in terms of the originality of the piece.
Do you miss some of the Baroque stage machinery in the modern theater? Are you going to try to evoke some of it or did Handel call for much elaborate machinery in this piece?
It is not necessary for Almira because indeed it’s a story where there is no mythology or magic. There are no characters which use their supernatural powers to require these types of effects in the work. But, because it’s taking place in Spain we are of course having costumes and different sets evocative of Spanish atmosphere and, thanks to the input of our technical director Gordon Manson, we are able to recreate the “changements à vue”, the set changes which happen under the eyes of the audience during the course of the opera. Handel wrote specific music for the set changes and we took a great care to respect that.
So the curtain never drops? The action stops and the music keeps playing while the scene changes?
You are absolutely right.
And are these really painted backdrops this time or are you having them printed the way you did during the performance of Niobe ?
Indeed we are printing them for different reasons. First is allows a stronger historical accuracy as the designs are based on photography of the few theater sets of the 18th- century still extant and we avoid any kind of personal interpretation on the pictorial language. Second there are some technical concerns to consider: the weight of set pieces (set painted in the baroque style can be quite heavy as they didn’t use transparent colors) and adequacy of conformity with fire regulations. Finally it has also a consideration in terms of time, because to paint so many surfaces would be a long and painstaking work for very skilled painters. For my production of Tigrane of Scarlatti last season in Opera de Nice, the painters had to work for months to paint all the detailed sceneries. [image here]
So how many actual drops are there in this production?
We have three which, with shutters, are moving constantly during the performance and follow the three types of the set of the period which is basically an outside urban space, an outside natural space, a garden, and an inside set, a princely palace. Use of these types of spaces was the common practice of the time as they were allowing a conventional frame in which any action could take place.
And is the lighting simulating candles?
As much as we can, but for obvious reasons we are brighter, as it’s a big theater, we want the people to see the singers and dancers! To experience the golden light of the candles is magical but we are also considering that the eyes of a modern audience which like to see more details than what the audience of the time was happy with. Performances then were very dark! If we were to expect the amount of light sources that they were having at the time I think people after twenty minutes would really have a hard time to support and sustain their interest, especially in a theater of the size of the Cutler Majestic.
Right, so it’s brighter than it would be in Baroque time but are there also more light cues and more modern effects of stage lighting that you’re using?
Our light designer is certainly using a lot of different effects to support the action and the atmosphere of the play and also to keep adjusted to the very elaborate Spanish costumes that our costume designer Anna Watkins has especially created for this production.
Have you ever done productions that use actual limelight or any actual fire-based lighting?
I had the pleasure to do productions of this kind, only with candlelight, which of course is extremely complex to master. It can only work in a very small space. For La Giuditta of Scarlatti, we were performing in baroque churches of the 17th-century; it was rewarding to use candles because the audience was never very far from the singers. [look here] An intimate space allows the director to deal with the constraints of clarity—you have to see the actors—but using fire sources has some effect on the choices of fabrics for costume, as they cannot be inflammable. Also you have to change the candles during the course of the performance which makes the show much longer because you have to replace in between each act most of the candles because of the heat the wax is melting quicker. So we would have to bring the performance to the duration which would be I think very difficult to deal with for our audience today. Our work for Almira in Boston is to establish a balance between all these factors: to give the modern audience the possibility to remain active: Imagination is stimulated in the audience and it makes the opera performance more vibrant because it is not only an experience of verification, but of shared creativity.