Composer: George Frideric Handel
Director: James Conway
Conductor: Jonathan Peter Kenny
Handel’s operas inhabit a strange world – or, rather, several different strange worlds. A man may express his love for a plane tree in music so reverent that the instrumental version became a staple of weddings and funerals. A giddy girl may fall in love with Jupiter (and with herself in some of the most high-spirited music in all opera) and be consumed by his fiery presence. That’s Xerxes and Semele for you – what of Amadigi?
It’s an early work (somewhere around number 11 of Handel’s 44 operas) and one of a number of magic operas he composed in Italian for the London stage. Clearly in the early 18th century a powerful love-crazed sorceress provided as potent a reason for florid vocalising as sopranos going mad would over a century later. The tortuous plot-line in which logic never dares show its face concerns the enchantress Melissa who loves the hero Amadigi. She imprisons him and his friend Dardano. Elsewhere in the prison is Amadigi’s love, Oriana, who is also loved by Dardano – when the two men discover each other’s feelings, their friendship ends. After escapes, re-captures, spells, illusions, attempted suicides and violent deaths, the happy pair are united.
So the question is, how seriously do you take all this? It’s doubtful that Handel himself believed in the plots as more than pegs for great music, star singers and stage effects, but the emotions generated by these strange characters in ridiculous situations are real enough – and you’d better take them seriously! James Conway, an experienced Handelian, maintains a knowing detachment, slides in a few visual quips, but never sends up the characters.
The problem for Conway is that, at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1715, all manner of spectacle was on display. Not so with English Touring Opera doing one- and two-nighters throughout the country. The magic fountain of Act 2 is frankly disappointing and, though Neil Irish’s stylish set has one or two little tricks to play, the production relies on Amadigi’s other claim to fame. Known as a singer’s opera, with only four parts it gives them plenty of opportunity to shine.
All four parts are written for high voices, offering various casting alternatives for the men: English Touring Opera has followed the original with a male Amadigi (castrato in 1715, counter-tenor in 2021) and a female alto Dardano. From the start William Towers impresses with his smoothly stylish delivery across the whole range, by no means guaranteed with counter-tenors, but there is little sign of the heroic in his tone or his stage presence. Scenes with Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’ well-sung, but rather dour, Dardano, and Harriet Eyley’s attractive Oriana, in Act 1 similarly lack the heroic or the passionate, and Jenny Stafford’s Melissa seems short on charisma.
However, the placing of the interval works wonders. With it occurring after Act 1 of a three-act opera, Conway’s slow-burning production builds an irresistible momentum through Acts 2 and 3. Initially it is Harriet Eyley, superb as Oriana, who kicks it off, with gloriously expressive singing over the “dead” body of Amadigi, then it all fits into place. Stafford, whether coolly vindictive or increasingly unhinged, begins to excite vocally, Towers finds the heroic edge to his smoothness of tone and Afonwy-Jones’ stolidity disappears in the brief joy of success in love.
And, simultaneously with the singers, the Old Street Band’s performance under baroque specialist Jonathan Peter Kenny gains colour. Accompaniments sparkle with sprightly woodwind (one ritornello seems ready to welcome the Queen of Sheba some 30 years too soon) and Melissa’s splendid trumpet aria near the end of Act 2 justifies the long wait for the brass.
The parts of Amadigi and Melissa are double-cast and during the tour opera-goers may encounter Tim Morgan or Francesca Chiejina in place of Towers or Stafford.