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“Almira” in the Berkshires
Ars longa, vita brevis runs the aphorism. Art is long, life is short. Perhaps it’s fitting that a doctor—Hippocrates no less—came up with the phrase, since it conveniently lets his profession off the hook from of prolonging ephemeral earthly life. It’s a decoy maneuver drawing attention to the supposedly larger, loftier goals of human existence—creating beautiful and lasting things.
One could be forgiven for musing on the shelf life of the current slate of mega-million dollar Hollywood hits from a Superman rehash to Fast & Furious 6. Will they be of any interest whatever in three hundred years, when the computer generated images of the present age will be looked on, if at all, as hopelessly primitive? It’s true that the MGM lion once roared above the motto Ars gratia artis—art for art’s sake—but that was pure bluff that only the king of beasts could bring off without bursting out laughing. Hollywood is short on art and long on entertainment: it’s all about immediate pleasure and profits.
I was musing on the longevity of entertainments and art last weekend as I made may way through the byways of Upstate New York across the state line into New England and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to see a lavishly staged production of a nineteen-year-old composer’s first opera written more than three centuries ago. The production was the centerpiece of the Boston Early Music Festival, which takes place every two years, and after an initial run of performances in the big city retreats for a weekend coda to the Berkshires and the historic Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington. The Mahaiwe was built in 1905 and has the plaster flourishes and bay loges hovering above the stage reminiscent of 18th-century theaters. The architecture’s imaginative riffing on history encourages a kindred approach in the staging; the theater is a kind of fantasy reenactment of the past and so is this opera production—detailed; researched; jubilant; inspired by the past, yet modern; and lasting in its appeal and utility.
The teenager who had composed Almira, a four-hour opera brimming with music from the flamboyantly extrovert to the intensely intimate, was named Georg Friedrich Händel. After his rise to international fame in Italy and then his permanent home of England, he would add a vowel here and lose one there in his first two names, and jettison that impossible umlaut to become George Frideric Handel.
Is it merely historical interest that resurrected Almira and brought it to a twenty-first-century audience filling the Mahaiwe Theater last weekend? Given Handel’s later masterpieces, works that have found increasing popularity in the repertoires of major opera houses around the world, the young Handel’s first attempt holds intrinsic fascination. But the rapturous reception the piece received in the Berkshires clearly demonstrated that the work conquered hearts and minds on its own merits without relying on the later prestige of its composer.
Having arrived in Hamburg only the year before Almira and landing a job as second violinist in the orchestra, the neophyte had been thrust into the position of producing a full-length stage work after the company’s main composer and impresario, Reinhard Keiser had decamped to distant Weißenfels after having plunged the opera house into financial rough seas not least because of his dissolute lifestyle. When Keiser fled Hamburg he absconded with the score for his own setting of the same Almira libretto. The Hamburg season had been planned and many other productions for the staging the libretto had been laid out, so Handel was called upon to provide the music. Unlike several of Handel’s subsequent early works, his score to Almira survives so that the piece could be presented again on a sweltering afternoon in the Berkshires more than three hundred years later.
Handel’s first opera is long, but does that mean it’s art? So colorful and imaginative is the music and the present production, that the four hours passed quickly. Does that make it life? All I can say is this Almira in something to revel in, to be entertained by, and to cherish. Many a contemporary writer on opera, including Handel’s Hamburg friend Johann Mattheson—with whom Handel fought a non-lethal duel in front of the opera house only a few weeks before the Almira premiere—praised opera as a school of the humanities that instructed one in painting and architecture in the sets; history and morals in the stories; poetry in the libretti; modern languages in the polyglot texts brought to the Hamburg state in works such as Almira. The Hamburg opera was the first municipal house in northern Europe, opening its doors in 1678. Conservative clerics in the city decried its potential to incite sin, and one can understand why the genre’s defenders (including more liberal churchmen) emphasized its capacity for ethical uplift.
Indeed, the Boston Early Music Festival Almira presents lavish sets designed according to period ideals by director Gilbert Blin. It has exotic costumes by Anna Watkins evoking exotic Castile, where the eponymous young heroine has recently been crowned Queen. The plot rewards not only noble birth, but also the moral constancy that is held to be the essence of royal blood. The convoluted and often comic plot—often exuberantly campy in this production directed by Gilbert Blin—is fueled by the opportunistic aspirations to the throne of a haughty and lustful Spaniard in contrast to the true love for the queen harbored by court functionary supposedly of lower station. The latter is revealed to be of noble birth in the opera’s denouement in which happy coincidences and pleasing comeuppances occur in quick succession and just in time for the festive closing chorus. The plot is a like a Rubik’s cube of perpetually perplexed, peeved, and ultimately reconciled lovers, each reshuffle of the amorous alignments providing the next opportunity for musical and theatrical confrontation with mutable human moods and relations.
Handel’s music is the best thing in this mix and the real reason why all the effort has gone into mounting again this hugely entertaining feast for the senses, with its glorious moments of rage, lust, disappointment, and fulfillment, as well as its sumptuous staging of court life—from gaming, to banqueting, to politically incorrect international pageants of Turks, Chinese and Africans. But the relationship between music and other theatrical elements is mutually reinforcing: all this stagecraft and dance, all these chances for actorly display, ingenuity, and linguistic panache allow the music to take on dimensions of enchantment unknown when merely heard on CD. Handel’s youthful ability to buoy and enrich the visual spectacle only makes one appreciate and enjoy more fully the power of his music.
The musical forces assembled under the banner of the Boston Early Music were arranged in a long oval facing each over their music desks as was typical during Handel’s time. The laurels go to the band’s concertmaster, Robert Mealy, who directed while playing amongst his compatriots, using the tip of his bow when necessary to keep the orchestra and singers in step. There was no baton-wielding conductor in the modern sense, which proved that the contained and focused ensemble characteristic of 18th-century performance allows for the cohesiveness and expressive nuance of chamber music when heard in a well-proportioned house. Yet having fewer musicians saps none the power and pomp that opera demands.
The musical directors were lutenists Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs who, in a lengthy rehearsal process, must have encouraged the players and singers to find the rich nuances and vital contrasts in Handel’s music. Gonazalo Ruiz’s fleet and florid oboe playing was crucial to many of the most gorgeous arias, as was David Morris’ plaintive viola da gamba, that most melancholic of commentators on, and comforting companions to, the lovelorn outpourings of the characters on stage. Michael Sponseller was incisive, elegant, and at times forcefully impulsive at the harpsichord, the crucial underpinning of the recitatives that push the action forward. Shifts in the plot are then reflected on at length in spacious arias, during which Sponseller judged his improvised accompaniments perfectly with respect to the singer’s register and affect, the shape of the melody and its emotional course.
As required by the genre, Handel wrote wonderful dance music for his Almira ranging from the poised to the brash. The choreography and its execution of the Boston/Great Barrington production matched Handel’s sense of balance and invention; the fiery elegance of Caroline Copeland as one of the Ladies-in-Waiting was full of the powerful subtlety, technical prowess, and passionate substance of the best operatic singing. Copeland was also one of the choreographers of the numerous dance episodes. In the Boston Early Music Festival production these intermittent tableaux proved that baroque choreography can captivate when creatively, but rigorously, brought to the stage.
The young Handel was not afraid to put his singers through their paces, from racing passagework to tender arias in which the expressive power of heartfelt melody must convince without the aid of flamboyance. The lovely songs of confession and commitment that fill the third and final act were given powerful renderings by Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira and Amanda Forsythe as the sometimes-competing princess Edilia. Several of these almost painfully beautiful arias were nearly destroyed by a crying infant ensconced in the royal box. Had such an unthinkable thing happened in a regal theater of the eighteenth century, the offending patron would have immediately been stripped by the real king of all her holdings and rank and shipped off to a distant colony to labor under a hot sun.
The cast was uniformly convincing both as singers and actors, finding the quirks and compulsions of their quixotic characters. Tenor Jason McStoots delivered broadsides of over-the-top comic relief as the servant Tabarco, indulging expertly in the buffoonery so beloved by Hamburg audiences of yore and Berkshire operagoers of the present. But the most radiantly magisterial and moving singing, here buttressed by aristocratic stage bearing, came from baritone Tyler Duncan, whose resonate voice carried to all corners of the rapt house. There was never a sense of struggle in his singing; he inhabited his role, physically and musically. Duncan is a great singer, and even better than that he’s a great Handelian.
What astounds amidst the prolific precocity of the teenage Handel’s first opera is how this young man—never married or otherwise leaving behind much evidence of having been amorously involved with other humans of either sex over the course of his long life—could evoke in music the pain and promise of love. No one has ever been better at capturing in music the truths of human feeling. Handel’s art imitates life but it also makes life better. That is why a youthful masterpiece Almira, a bolt from the blue, will keep coming back to opera houses of the future, like Haley’s comet dazzling a darkened stage. Keep a lookout for its next appearance, and hope that it will return with the brightness of its most recent, glorious sighting.