The biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) has by now established itself as “…arguably the most important and influential Early Music event in the world.” (BBC3 Radio, emphasis added). This splendid farrago of concerts, master classes, and a wide-ranging Exhibition takes place June 9-16, and ought to be a must-see event for any serious musician or music lover, whether of “Early Music” stripe or not.
The opening event, a performance of G.F. Handel’s opera Almira, took place Sunday afternoon in the delightfully faux Baroque-decorated Emerson Majestic Theatre, and it would not be hyperbole to pronounce this production a triumph. My only regret had nothing to do with the performance: there were too many empty seats for so top-drawer an offering. Admittedly, the outside weather was a perfect New England late Spring day, and, well, the tickets might have been a bit dear for some, but trust me—there ought not be one empty seat for any of the remaining performances: June 12, 14, and 16 in Boston, and June 21, 22 and 23 in the pleasantly intimate Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington.
Now in its 17th Season, BEMF has in recent years offered performances of worthy Baroque-period operas as centerpieces of their festivals. Indeed, the weighty and comprehensive program book already lists a compelling Monteverdian trifecta for the June 7-14, 2015 Festival—Orfeo, Ulysses, and Poppea. BEMF makes no small plans. But the opera at hand is Almira, the astonishing work of a 19-year-old boy genius named George Frideric Handel. That he accomplished so much so well at that tender age is only part of the astonishment. The writing for orchestra is much of what we immediately recognize in the composer’s mature works—tuneful, endlessly inventive, cleverly scored, alternately brilliant, solemn or sprightly and dancing, with canny choices of brass and woodwind color when the dramatic occasion may demand. No less remarkable is the writing for voices, which runs the gamut from blazing coloratura, doleful lament, and buffo quirkiness. In other words, though this may be an early work, it betrays very little naiveté at all.
The theme of this year’s BEMF is “Youth—Genius and Folly,” and Handel’s Almira is a bright reflection of this idea. The opera’s summary is described thus by Gilbert Blin, BEMF’s gifted Stage Director, and the multi-talented Ellen Hargis:
Almira is crowned Queen of Castile by her guardian Consalvo. Fernando, a foreigner of obscure birth and secretary to Almira is in love with her, and she has the same secret feelings for him. Consalvo’s son Osman, who has been courting Princess Edilia, now hopes to marry Almira and thereby become King. Edili is in love with Osman and tries to force him to honor his commitment to her. Princess Bellante also loves Osman, but cannot attract his attention. Raymondo, a mysterious emissary from Mauretania, is another of the Queen’s suitors. A series of misunderstandings ensues, drolly observed by the servant Tabarco.
As with any summary, much is omitted from this description. Yet even reading this précis makes it clear that there is rich ground here for farce and drama. “A series of misunderstandings” is quite the understatement, it turns out, and Handel rises to every occasion this plot of twists and turns offers.
Of the singers much can be said, but I’ll be brief. As Princess Edilia, soprano Amanda Forsythe was comely, self-assured, brilliant and characterful. Handel offers Edilia the brightest of coloratura escapades, and Ms. Forsythe nailed every offered opportunity with panache and gleaming tone. Ulrilke Hofbauer, also a soprano but of pleasing and different vocal character from Ms. Forsythe, sang the title role with excellent dramatic fervor and rich character identity. Almira, as Queen of Castile, is of a more lofty and regal plane than of the two princesses who also adorn this opera, and Handel’s music for her covers a wider vocal range, especially in the low tessitura that Ms. Hofbauer plumbed with rich color. Her acting was vigorous and believable as that of a sovereign, but a human sovereign affected by the darts of Amor’s bow. Soprano Valerie Vinzant as Princess of Aranda sang with energy and conviction, and I was particularly taken with the virtuosity and creativity she brought to her ornamentation of her da capo arias’ repeats.
Lyric Tenor Colin Balzer brought vocal beauty, a nicely varied tonal palette and a wide dramatic range to his role as the wronged, then redeemed Fernando, the secretary and ardent suitor of Almira. As Consalvo, the elderly Prince of Segovia and Guardian of Almira, baritone Christian Immler offered burnished tone and robust, elegant suaveness in his singing. And, speaking of robust, he bravely bore in his costume an obvious embodiment of his aging though clearly intact manliness throughout the opera. I wonder whose provocative idea that was – Stage Director Gilbert Blin, perhaps? Zachary Wilder, a bright-voiced tenor with a gift for comedic acting, played Consalvo’s son, Osman. Part of Osman’s dramatic challenges is an exhibition of Spanish swordplay, and Mr. Wilder brought a winning mix of youthful prowess to this and a pleasantly gleaming tone to his singing. Perhaps his occasional and seemingly off-book forays into somewhat distracting humor were the direction of others? Nonetheless, Mr. Wilder’s singing and acting were memorable and germane. Tyler Duncan, baritone, brought regal bearing and commensurate noble tone to his role as Raymondo, a mysterious and early-on disguised King of Mauretania who ultimately wins the love of the much-pursued Princess Edilia.
Glibert Blin’s program notes intriguingly explain the “purpose” of the buffo role of Tabarco, Fernando’s servant and the “gracious jester” whose equivalent in Spanish comedies of the time was known as “…Siglo d’oro”: the gracioso, who was the centerpiece of the Spanish system for comedies.” In this production, and indeed in Handel’s setting, Tabarco is on-stage much of the time, busily fussing about with a broom, constantly and amusingly interacting with the performers and commenting in low-humor fashion to the members of the audience (and us by extension) that had in Hamburg paid the cheapest admission cost. Handel incorporated this courtly fool in his opera as part of an agreement between his librettist Feustking and his Hamburg audience, as Blin continues, ”…this character highlights the noble qualities of heroes because he always presents the negative side, topsy-turvy nature, or caricature of them.”
Thus Tabarco, as a symbol of folly which underlies the human existence, is the (im)moral lynchpin of the entire Almira dramatic plan, coloring our view of the stage proceedings from the opera’s beginning to its end. I delve deeply into this explanation to praise all the more the full involvement of tenor Jason McStoots in this demanding role. McStoots would appear to be born to the part of playing buffo characters, so completely did he inhabit his character. By nature Tabarco is an intrusive presence—even before the opera began we were amused and distracted by bumptious goings-on behind the still-drawn curtain. And as it rose, we were treated to a full-on view of Tabarco’s hindquarters fully in our faces. What better embodiment of low-humor folly than this? And McStoots would gamely maintain this intrusive nature throughout the opera. Now all of that would be well-enough, but Tabarco is also asked to sing, and that, too, did McStoots do very well indeed, with bright, clear and fully-fledged tenor sonority. He almost stole many a scene.
By now the orchestra that plays the BEMF operas needs no introduction. Each season it is one of the finest early music bands one could hope to hear. Lutenists Paul O’Dette and Steven Stubbs, and violinist Robert Mealy once again led this estimable ensemble with vigor and panache. And, what luxury to have such a fabulous continuo ensemble harboring Theorbo, Baroque Guitar, Baroque Harp, Gamba, and two keyboards creatively played by Kristian Bezuidenhout and Michael Sponseller. Percussionist Ben Grossman lent an exotic air to the appearances of Raymodo, the Mauretanian King, with a battery of “Turkish” instruments. Double Bass player Robert Nairn and Bassoonist Marilyn Boenau artfully anchored the bass instrument department.
Add to all the above the gracious and informed Baroque dancing helmed by
Co-Choreographers Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante and Ballet Mistress Melinda Sullivan, and the sumptuous brocaded costuming by Anna Watkins (was it her wonderful idea to have the male Fencing Masters and Bodyguards contrastingly garbed in black and white?), plus the beautiful, stunningly creative and fully believable stage sets by BEMF’s extraordinary Stage Director and Set Designer Gilbert Blin and you have a winning undertaking at all levels.
So, by all means go see and hear Almira in its remaining performances. Fully top-notch offerings of this kind are rare, and here it is, right in the lap of Boston, easily accessible by public transportation and reasonably priced parking close by.