United Kingdom Garsington Opera 2021  – Handel, Amadigi di Gaula: Soloists, The English Concert / Christian Curnyn (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 21.7.2021. (CR)
Director and designer – Netia Jones
Lighting Designer – Jake Wiltshire
Choreographer – Anna Morrissey
Projection – Lightmap
Amadigi – Sonja Runje
Dardano – Tim Mead
Melissa – Anna Devin
Oriana – Rhian Lois
Orgando – Edmund Visintin
Surprisingly, given the ever-growing revival of Handel’s stage works, this is the first time that Garsington have produced any of the canon of his Italian operas – the only previous outing was Semele in 2017, which was written late in the composer’s career as an English oratorio rather than explicitly as an opera to be staged. To the Festival’s credit they have not gone for one of the obvious examples, but instead for the relatively early and unknown Amadigi (1715) – written whilst Handel was still finding is feet as a composer in England, and five years before the start of the great series of compositions written for his two London opera academies that are the pinnacle of opera seria.
Amadigi presents some additional challenges, apart from the usual complications of the Baroque operatic genre for modern realisation. Being based on a Spanish ‘romance’ in the vein of Orlando furioso (and also happens to be referred to in Cervantes’s great mock epic, Don Quixote) it features magic elements. Secondly, the earliest source for the music is a conducting score rather than Handel’s manuscript, and omits certain items as it implies rather more dancing in the French style than actual dances in the score remain (Handel’s libretto is, unusually for him, based on a French work, but does not always make the actions and motivations of the characters clear).
The magic elements are somewhat sidestepped in Netia Jones’s production, but imaginatively so. The sorceress Melissa’s demons become a troupe of dancers (at least dovetailing with the balletic aspect therefore) who sinisterly shadow the characters at points of heightened emotion or drama; and they interact with the protagonists in such a way that they are supposed to be invisible or discreet. Dressed in full body leotards, they slither and slink around – from trap doors in the floor, around the tall movable cuboids which are the main feature of the set, and up ladders and through walls. They start out in simple white and black, matching the austere contrasts of much of the set for the first part. But as the drama becomes more focused on Melissa’s jealous love for the knight Amadigi in the second part, more orange comes into play among the troupe’s costumes and the set, for instance as the former now appear in orange and black leotards, or don more extravagant gear. It is as well that they perform with a generally slow, sly deliberation as their partly orange form and hostile actions meted out to Melissa’s unsuspecting victims are rather reminiscent of the tricks played in the ‘You know when you’ve been tango’d’ series of TV adverts for that fizzy orange drink in the 1990s.
Television marketing seems possibly to have played on Jones’s mind in the first part, as an oversize model black horse takes centre stage, resembling the symbol used by Lloyds Bank in its advertising. Amadigi mounts it once, so it is a rather underused resource, as is the large orange egg, from or to which nothing is done at all, nor does it appear to suggest anything. The perspective arrangement of the set with its upright cuboids is more slickly evocative of an imagined architectural space, underpinned by mathematics, with the letters of Amadigi’s name spread out amongst it, in case anyone in the audience forgets which opera they are seeing. Costumes – especially on the part of the troupe, some of the time – take inspiration from the eighteenth century but are not subservient to that era. The play of lights in the second half, as the dusk outside the auditorium has descended takes up the theme of grids and perspective in a more dazzlingly animated fashion, suggesting Baroque profusion through more modern means.
The cast of four significant principals is the smallest of any Handel opera. Sonja Runje’s Amadigi maintains quiet, focused dignity in her singing, whether expressing sorrow at love’s tribulations or joy. It is a subtle execution of a part which concentrates on a more intimate part of the knight’s character, rather than his heroic persona. In appropriate contrast, Anna Devin startles as Melissa, as she should, with her steely, brazen rendition of the vivid coloratura Handel writes for the part, occasionally issuing in a deliberately witchy shrieking when spitting out irate, vicious words to others.
As Oriana, Amadigi’s lover, Rhian Lois produces a generally commendable evenness and richness of tone, though under pressure, particularly in recitatives, that becomes a touch shrill. Tim Mead mopes around in a long black cassock as Dardano, in an almost disembodied fashion, as he confronts the fact of his futile love for Oriana, in competition with Amadigi, which results in his death at the latter’s hands. Mead sings with suitable and even somewhat unearthly stillness, sustained without vibrato but producing an incisive timbre nonetheless, particularly in the haunting accompanied recitative where he reappears from the dead to foretell Amadigi and Oriana’s union. That is confirmed in the brief appearance of the wizard Orgando, written in the soprano range, whose two recitatives are sung cleanly by boy chorister Edmund Visintin.
Christian Curnyn conducts a fairly sober account of the score in the first part, the English Concert bringing their own familiarity with Handel’s music to bear with tidy and decorous nuances. However, they are let off their leash rather more in the second half with the wider contrasts that are instilled in the music and particularly in the greater energy and dynamism of the extrovert numbers. The addition of a glowing trumpet for Melissa’s rage aria ‘Destero dall’empia Diete’ adds a thrillingly, but ironic, heroic dimension to this number, offsetting the sympathy drawn to her in Act I where a self-pitying recitative is accompanied by cello alone, telling omitting the harpsichord in this interpretation. This production imposes a certain quirky consistency, therefore, upon an uneven work.