London was recently treated to a concert performance of Handel’s first ‘magic’ opera, Rinaldo, by the English Concert. The London Handel Festival – presumably coincidentally – happens to present this year the two examples which followed soon after that, starting with Amadigi (1715); Teseo will be presented later. Amadigi is rather less well-known than its predecessor, and though it may be less epic, it encompasses just as much spectacle with its spirits, demons, a ghostly apparition, a fiery portal through which Amadigi (Siegfried-like) heroically passes, a hellish cave, and thunder.
Leo Duarte energetically and vividly depicted all that in this lively account of the work with Opera Settecento, creating a dramatic, raw interpretation for some of those startling episodes, and driving Handel’s sequence of numbers with compelling urgency to sustain theatrical vigour. Together they brought out a similar sort of motoric pace perhaps more normally associated with Vivaldi’s operas, but at the time of Amadigi’s composition, the Italian composer had only written three or four works for the stage, and it is unlikely that Handel would have known them. But far from a merely brisk and impulsive dash through the score, Duarte’s reading was attuned to the particular character or Affekt of each aria, revealing the imaginative variety of Handel’s genius. The various contributions of James Eastaway and Bethan White on mournful oboes and rustic recorders, and Paul Bosworth in virtuosic ceremonial displays on trumpet provided effective points of colour.
The cast was also ideally responsive to vocal demands. Countertenor Michal Czerniawski was impressively consistent and even through the coloratura called for in the (originally castrato) part of the hero, Amadigi, who has to contend with the attempts of the jealous sorceress Melissa, to thwart his love for Oriana. She is only too pleased to cast her spells, not only at the convenient bidding of Dardano – Amadigi’s rival for Oriana’s affections – but on account of her own whims, since she is besotted with Amadigi herself. Erica Eloff combined both the imperious, hysterical impulses of Melissa with a more human aspect to a role that anticipates the eponymous figure of Handel’s later and greatest ‘magic’ opera, Alcina. The depth of feeling Eloff invested in ‘Ah spietato’ raised that aria to the level of the latter opera’s more renowned ‘Ah! Mio cor’, whilst her more vengeful, enraged outpourings elsewhere were equally arresting.
Maria Ostroukhova’s Dardano was technically accomplished, but there was room for more contrast and direct projection of the character’s music, even taking account of the fact that it encompasses the lowest vocal register within the opera, as her singing sometimes seemed more generalised. But in taking on the role of the apparition of Dardano’s ghost, and also Oriana’s father Orgando, she sounded more appropriately and artfully disembodied. Ilona Revolskaya completed the quartet of singers as a golden-toned Oriana, pure and unaffected at times, but at others expressing more fire and passion as necessary, acting as the more dignified foil to Melissa’s histrionics. All credit to Duarte and his ensemble, then, for their enthusiastic advocacy of a rewarding Handel opera.