If you think that a baroque opera is an intellectual exercise for early music geeks, be prepared for a surprise. Every emotion from pathos to rip-roaring laughter greeted Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Handel’s Almira Sunday evening at Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre. From stagecraft to vocal and instrumental virtuosity, mounting this opera represents a thunderclap in the opera world that will reverberate for some time to come. Previous BEMF opera productions have gone on tour to be performed at Tanglewood and national and international venues, and this opera surely will join them in that esteemed pantheon.
Why Almira? Considering that this is the only opera that has never been done in Great Britain or received a professional stage performance in this country, is it really worth doing? This is a question Ellen Harris, MIT musicologist, posed to a small group some time before Sunday’s performance. I think it’s a legitimate question, because performers and scholars working with music before the 19th century can be accused of overestimating the relative importance of preparing something as expensive and laborious as a fully staged historical opera. Harris went on to explain that this work exists in a unique place in Handel’s oeuvre, because it is his earliest surviving opera, written when the composer was only 19 years old, and represents a different set of stylistic and operatic conventions than those written for London audiences years later.
What you will not find is anything that can be associated with a neophyte composer who is only showing promise of great talent. Handel’s mastery of late 17th-century Venetian, English, German, and French forms is already quite evident. And not only are those forms well worked and astonishingly orchestrated, they forward the action and the affect of the narrative in a compelling manner. Even the greatest opera cannot succeed unless it is in the hands of expert directors, and we have come to expect nothing less than brilliant work from the creative genius and joie de vivre of Paul Odette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors, who brought this work to life. The two continuo groups including harpsichords, baroque harp, with directors playing theorbo, lute and baroque guitar, anchored an orchestra made up of strings, oboes, recorders, and bassoon. The strings, energetically led by Robert Mealy, played with precision and vivacity, but Phoebe Carrai’s cello obbligatos must be singled out as deliciously beguiling. Gonzalo Ruiz’s oboe was musical, but technical problems and lack of power in the upper range detracted at times; I missed Stephen Hammer’s oboe. Baroque harpist Maxine Eilander enthralled the audience in two of the most unique and memorable arias of Almira.
Oh yes, and the singers. The success of the production hinges on the main character, Almira, who, if not sung and acted with grace, intelligence, poise and beauty, would sink the whole ship (no pun intended). Ulrike Hofbauer not only did not disappoint, but also showed what I dream an early 18th-century soprano would do. I can’t wait to hear her again. The audience favorite was Amanda Forsythe as Edilia. The rage aria, “Der Himmel wird straffen,” showcased her Queen-of-the-Night coloratura technique, and richly powerful vocal and dynamic range. Colin Blazer’s light and agile tenor voice was perfect in the role of Fernando, Almira’s true love. There are no evil characters in this opera, but the sometimes bumbling yet ambitious Consalvo and his son, Osman, were handsomely acted and sung by Christian Immler and Zachary Wilder. Tyler Duncan’s resonant baritone combined lyrical and dramatic qualities that were just right for the Moorish Raymondo, King of Mauritania. Valerie Vinzant’s sprightly soprano delighted us as Bellante. Last but not least of the principals, Jason McStoots, often stole the show as the mischievous buffoon, Tabarco, Fernando’s manservant. He is well known to Boston audiences, but this will propel him to new horizons.
What makes opera so complex beyond other musical ensemble performances (as anyone involved in it knows) and so damned expensive, is the stage craft—direction, costumes, sets, choreography, and lighting. Raising the stakes is the fact that this is a relatively unknown “period” work that to a certain extent is being reconstructed. That Kathleen Fay’s indefatigable leadership throughout so many seasons can be counted on does not make the process any less challenging. Ultimately the buck stops at the feet of the stage director who has so much to say about concept, context, look, and “how this opera is going to go.” BEMF is fortunate to have the talent and genius of Gilbert Blin as stage director. His accomplishments as an actor, historian, and period theatre expert are dizzying. His work at Drottningholm, with musicologist Rémy-Michel Trotier has brought the level of period theatrical productions to new heights. We became acquainted with his art at BEMF beginning in 2007 with his production of Lully’s Thésée, followed by Lully’s Psyché and Monteverdi’s Poppea. Could we expect anything less than brilliance with Almira?
Beyond the audible gasps of the audience when the curtain was raised, and the revelation of glorious costumes, depth-defying sets and chiaroscuro effects of lighting, is the assurance that what will take place has been so thoroughly and lovingly sought after and thought about. Hamburg audiences of the early 18th-century had an appetite for spectacle and so Handel and his team had to oblige. One would think that BEMFs production would match stylistically the originals, but most surely, surpass them in sheer pageantry and fun. This Almira never wasted a second of the audience’s attention with static tableaux. Even during the longest da capo arias, there was the ever-present thread of dance, pantomime, movement, swashbuckling swordsmanship or Tabarco’s silliness that kept us in rapt devotion.
Richard Taruskin wrote that the early music revival is a truly “modernist” project. I would add that those who think that period-instrument performances are relics of a museum culture might consider the Florentine Camarata’s agenda that gave birth to a truly new and modern form in the early 17th-century-opera.
I recommend breaking the bank to get tickets to the remaining performances, June 12, 14 and 16 at the Cutler and June 21-23 in the Berkshires, but I think the Cutler Majestic Theater’s acoustics and proportions, not to mention its luxuriously restored interior, are ideally suited for Baroque opera. What wonderful gem will BEMF offer us in 2015?