LHF: Handel – Amadigi di Gaula

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula
London Handel Festival
Opera Settecento, Leo Duarte
St George’s, Hanover Square. 24 March 2018

Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11) is a rarely performed early opera by Handel, composed in 1715 while he was staying at Burlington House (pictured), the London home of the young Earl of Burlington, Richard Boyle. It is now, in altered form, the home of the Royal Academy. Boyle had inherited the house and adjoining estate aged 10. He was around 9 years younger than Handel and was to become an influential amateur architect in Georgian London, notably for Chiswick House. By 1715, he had already completed the first of his ‘Grand Tours’ and was fast becoming a major patron of the arts and music.

Burlington_House_1698-99.jpgAmadigi di Gaula is a curious and complex tale, based on a late 14th-century Castillian chivalric fantasy romance that also inspired Don Quixote. The tale involves Princess Oriana (not to be confused with the hero of Felix the Cat), a fictional heiress to the throne of England (the ‘Fortunate Isles’) and her protector knight, the Scottish born Amadigi of Gaul, who is love with her, as is his companion Dardano, Prince of Thrace. The evil sorceress Melissa is infatuated with Amadigi. To this end, she imprisons Oriana in a tower and Amadigi and Dardano in a nearby garden. She tries various spells to attract Amadigi, who, initially together with Dardano, is trying to rescue Oriana. After a complex series of deceptions, betrayals, jealousy and sorcery, Amadigi and Oriana are finally united, but not before Amadigi has killed Dardano and Melisa has stabbed herself as her supernatural powers fail against the power of love.

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Charles Burney described Amadigi as having ‘more invention, variety and good composition, than in any one of the musical dramas of Handel which I have yet carefully and critically examined’. The original production including an astonishing array of special effects, including a real fountain. It was very successful at the time with around 17 performances, many under the title of Oriana. It is scored for strings, two recorders/oboes, bassoon, trumpet, strings, and basso continuo, and the writing includes a prominent role for the woodwind (James Eastaway and Bethan White, oboes & recorders, and Joe Qui, bassoon).

Opera Settecento assembled an exceptional cast of four singers for this concert performance, with Amadigi sung by Polish countertenor Michal Czerniawski, Oriana by Russian soprano Ilona Revolskaya, Melissa by the South African soprano Erica Eloff, and Dardano by the Russian Maria Ostroukhova (who had sung in the London Handel Festival concert the previous evening, reviewed here). There is drama from the start with Amadigi and Dardano falling out over Oriana in the very first scene. Maria Ostroukhova ended her dramatic opening aria as Dardano with an angry high yelp, a foretaste of her impressive dramatic presence throughout the evening, her simple hand gestures and excellent contact with the audience helping her portrayal of her character. Incidentally, she helped to portray her trouser-role persona with a make-up beard and moustache. Michal Czerniawski was very impressive as Amadigi, his agile and well-articulated voice combining with the clarity of his vocal tone. His two opening arias reflect the contrasting moods that all the characters were to experience and explore, the gentle Notte amica segueing into the dramatic Che miro! as he is confronted by the troop of infernal spirits sent by the sorceress Melissa. Melissa herself follows, in a fury at Amadigi’s attempt to escape the garden, but tempered by her adoration of him, contrasting emotions that she explores on her aria Ah! spietato, with its exquisite oboe solo and turbulent second section. The portrayal of such extremes of emotion was a hallmark of Erica Eloff’s dramatically projected singing throughout the evening.

Oriana appears after a “loud boisterous simphony”, singing of her love for Amadigi with the siciliana Gioie venite in sen and the gentle aria O Caro mio tesor. Ilona Revolskaya demonstrated an excellent singing style, her clear, focused, and rich tone helped by minimal vibrato and with impressive use of ornaments and musical elaborations. Later musical highlights included her S’estinto è l’idol mio. 

Handel’s music inAmadigi di Gaula is particularly impressive and deserves to be heard more. His ability to reflect wide-ranging emotions and personal characters very evident in these early works, as is his use of orchestral colour and texture, for example in his dramatic melodic lines of the concluding aria of Act I, O Rendetemi, where the opening violin phrase covers two and a half octaves, and his use of two recorders at the start of Act II Sussurrate.

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In place of a printed text of the libretto, the audience could buy a copy of the original translation, with the performance instructions and scenes included. One nice point about this was that, rather than printing the translations of the often complex text of the arias, a precis of what they were singing about was provided. The interval was well chosen, dividing the three-Act work into two, with the interval after Scene IV of  Act II, set in a “horrible Cave”, with its dramatic concluding duet between Amadigi and Melissa. The following Scene V opens with Dardanus’s Pena tiranna, a sarabande with exquisite bassoon and oboe melodies. Shortly afterwards, Dardanus disguised himself as Amadigi to try to seduce Oriano, a scene which concludes with the aria  mia speranza with its delightfully bucolic dance accompaniment.

Things then got complicated, with Melissa killing Amadigi (who reappears as a ghost), a catfight between Melissa and Oriana, some very dramatic recitatives (with impressive continuo accompaniment by David Wright, harpsichord, Alex McCartney, theorbo, and Jonathan Rees, cello) and one of Erica Ellof’s dramatic highlights as Melissa, Destero dall’empia Dite, accompanied by Paul Bosworth on trumpet. Act III opens with another of Ilona Revolskaya’s highlights with Oriano’s gorgeous cavatina Dolce vita del mio petto. Melissa then stabs herself with a “Ponyard” (a small dagger), only for Erica Eloff to reappear clad in white (originally on a chariot) as Oriana’s uncle Orgando, as the scene changes from a cave into a beautiful palace to an accompanying Sinfonia. Orgando announces the inevitable twist as the “Pious Heav’ns” decree the end of Amadigi and Oriana’s torment and their forthcoming marriage. Cupid’s star appears in the “Heav’ns” and Amadigi sings the concluding triumphant aria Sento la gioia before the concluding chorus and duet between the couple and a  lively Dance of Shepherds and Shepherdesses, curiously, in a minor key, with conductor Leo Duarte on tambourine.

Although this was a concert performance, the interaction between the singers was appropriate to the scenes, for example, with singers staying where they were while being sung to. Individuals portrayed varying visual demonstrations of their character, with Erica Elloff and Maria Ostroukhova both excelling at this. Leo Duarte took a sensible approach to the pacing of the music, creating drama, but avoiding over-fast tempos. The Orchestra of Opera Settecento, led by Bojan Čičić, were very impressive. It would have been helpful if Leo Duarte’s programme notes had included more (or indeed, anything) about the plot of the story, although his essay on the original singers was on interest in itself.

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