When you think of Handel’s Amadigi (in so far as anyone thinks about the composer’s rarely staged, also-ran London score at all) it’s as a magic-opera. Sorcerers and sorceresses do battle in a fantasy land not found on any map. The stage directions alone are enough to stir the commercial loins of any 18th-century impresario. Enchanted palaces are ‘split asunder’, caves transformed into ‘beautiful palaces’, monsters ‘ascend from the bowels of the Earth’ and a chariot ‘descends covered in clouds’.
All of which originally took place in full view of an audience so beguiled by illusion that even the Georgians’ rather more informal attitude to health and safety was tested, and the Daily Courant forced to publish a weary plea: ‘There is a great many Scenes and Machines to be mov’d in this Opera, which cannot be done if Persons should stand upon the Stage (where they could not be without Danger). It is therefore hop’d no Body, even the Subscribers, will take it Ill that they must be deny’d Entrance on the Stage…’.
Magic, then, for Handel’s librettist as for Walt Disney, was about theme-park sensation. But for Handel it’s more than that. You only have to listen to the unexpectedly sober Overture or the opera’s minor-key close to know that magic here is just a metaphor for something real: for the irrational, blinding, beguiling and ultimately transforming force of human emotion, capable of rendering a king or even a witch suddenly powerless.
The characters — the knight Amadigi; his jealous love-rival; a sorceress; a kidnapped princess — may be puppets, but their feelings are those of flesh and blood, and that’s what turns this slight operatic four-hander into something much more interesting — so interesting, in fact, that Garsington’s new production is the first of two different stagings this year. (The second follows this autumn from English Touring Opera.)
You can see why Garsington opted for director Netia Jones, whose signature illusions, smudging the edges of reality with digital technology, are the 21st-century equivalent of all those Georgian techies hauling ropes and rolling cannon balls thunderously around backstage. Unfortunately while Jones’s production looks striking — a chessboard meets White Cube, monochrome pillars, ladders and trapdoors enlivened with acid, abstract hits of orange — it has little to say about the people who climb and writhe and emote within it. (More of the writhing later.)
Handel is good with sorceresses. Like Alcina, Armida or Medea, Amadigi’s Melissa is much the most interesting character on stage — a woman who can have anything she wants except the man she loves. It’s her progress towards suicide that anchors the slight narrative, the end goal firmly in the sights of a strikingly experimental score.
Cushioning harmonies are often traded for exposed two-part counterpoint between voice and bassline that only serves to emphasise the absence at its core, further underlined by the unusual lack of any tenors or basses. Da capo arias break off midway and exit arias turn all Sartre and offer characters no way out. In short this is Handel crumbling his musical castle before our ears, exposing the fragile illusion of opera itself.
All of which offers plenty of dramatic opportunities, seized with both hands by conductor Christian Curnyn and the English Concert, who blaze with colour whether in the blood-red of military trumpets or the faded pastels of a pair of coaxing recorders. Dance rhythms are carved deep by lower strings, and the pit becomes the bubbling cauldron at the centre of Handel’s musical spell.
But on stage things are oddly inert. A troupe of scuba-suited dancers shadow Anna Devin’s stylishly sung Melissa — emotion outsourced into their restless crawling and wriggling. It’s fatally diluting, a dramatic dead end like the ladders they persist in shimmying up and down, leading nowhere. Tim Mead’s Dardano (who shines in the opera’s hit aria ‘Pena Tiranna’, complete with saxophone-channelling solo bassoon, giving it the full ‘Careless Whisper’) gets a smoking habit instead of a personality, while Rhian Lois’s Oriana sounds unusually pallid — the soprano’s normally blossomy tone flattened into the tight confines of period repertoire.
In the title role, mezzo Sonja Runje is an exciting Handelian in the making, all easy physicality and grainy vocal warmth. But she takes time to settle, coming into focus only in the final act, by which point Jones’s production has deteriorated into a screensaver of geometric projections and a climax that swaps fantasy for a cheap street magician’s trick. The sorceress has broken her staff before casting a single spell, and we’re left to shrug where we should marvel.
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