Monday 4 October 2021

Magic & emotional turmoil: English Touring Opera in Handel's Amadigi di Gaula

Handel Amadigi di Gaula - William Towers, Harriet Eyley - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - William Towers, Harriet Eyley - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Handel Amadigi di Gaula; Jenny Stafford, William Towers, Harriet Eyley, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, dir: James Conway, cond: Jonathan Peter Kenny; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 October 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
25 years after first directing the work, James Conway returns with an engaging production which brings out the emotional turmoil of the characters

English Touring Opera's Autumn 2021 tour, its first touring activities since March 2020, focuses on Handel's Amadigi di Gaula, an opera more likely to be encountered on recording or in concert than in the theatre, though this year seems to be the exception with a production at Garsington this Summer, and productions in Frankfurt and Meiningen. English Touring Opera is doing an 18-date tour which started at the Hackney Empire on 1 October 2021 with some roles double cast. We went along to Hackney on Saturday 2 October 2021 to see English Touring Opera performing Handel's Amadigi di Gaula directed by James Conway with William Towers as Amadigi, Jenny Stafford as Melissa (her debut in the production), Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Dardano, Harriet Eyley as Oriana and Alek Nikolaev as Orgando (the role is cast with a young artist local to each theatre). Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted the Old Street Band. Designs were by Neil Irish with lighting by Rory Beaton.

The opera begins in media res with two knights Amadigi (William Towers) and Dardano (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones) captured by the enchantress Melissa (Jenny Stafford), with Melissa already in love with Amadigi though this is not reciprocated. Amadigi loves Oriana (Harriet Eyley), though quickly in Act One, Dardano discovers that both he and Amadigi love Oriana. Thus, though this is a magic opera, Handel's interest arises from the series of intersecting love triangles, and in fact few of the dazzling magic scenes (cue for spectacular sets in the original production) have major musical accompaniments.

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Jenny Stafford - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Jenny Stafford - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

So Neil Irish's setting was an 18th-century style space, albeit with some modern details, focused on a statue of Melissa whose versatile plinth became one of the focuses of Melissa's magic and which, at the end of Act One becomes Amadigi's tomb. James Conway's production thus concentrated on the interactions of the characters, but the magic was not neglected and a number of animations and projections were included in the performance which added a level of magic without making it the focus.

The role of Amadigi was written for the castrato Nicolini, who had sung the title role in Handel's Rinaldo. It is quite a conventional heroic role and Amadigi is in love with Oriana who returns his love and is entirely faithful (the opera's complications come from the tricks of Melissa's magic). Such goodness is somewhat difficult to depict, and Handel seems to have been somewhat more interested in the complex characters, Dardano and Melissa. Yet both William Towers and Harriet Eyley brought the lovers to life. Amadigi's musical heroics seemed to suit Towers who was in fine voice, impressing both in the more heroic moments, but also in his terrific aria which closed Act One when Amadigi is literally entombed in grief, and in his striking aria in Act Two when Amadigi looks into Melissa's magic pool (and of course, sees just what Melissa wants him to see). Conway introduced some interesting meditative elements to Amadigi's character, using Zen-like concentration to get through Melissa's magic fire, and this gave a nice depth to the heroics. Similarly we first encountered Harriet Eyley's Oriana knitting (wearing glasses) in her confinement in Melissa's magic tower. The scarf became something of a focus and Amadigi returned to wearing it (over his heroic armour) at the end of the opera. With this and other details, Eyley brought Oriana to life as someone quite down to earth and practical, making her entirely delightful in fact.

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, William Towers - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, William Towers - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Jenny Stafford brought out the humanity in Melissa, we were aware that this was a love-triangle rather than simply a fearsome sorceress. Stafford brought out the complexities of the character, she was focused on her love for Amadigi yet unafraid of using magic to this about, and Stafford moved finely from the moving woman in love to the terrific fiery aria at the end of Act Two to her profoundly simple death scene. Always engaging and stylish, this was a fine performance and a subtle one. The plot treats Dardano rather shabbily, he dies off-stage in Act Two, though he is resurrected briefly in Act Three, but he gets one of the opera's hit numbers 'Pena tiranna io sento al core', one of those pieces which have developed a life independent of the opera. Here was had Philip Turbett's fine bassoon playing complementing the rich, dark tones of Rebecca Afonwy-Jones fine mezzo-soprano voice. Throughout the opera Afonwy-Jones provided a great vocal contrast to Towers, showing that whilst Handel's opera might use only upper voices, it does not have to lack light and shade. Afonwy-Jones was a vigorous Dardano, who had a brief moment of joy but spends most of the opera discovering the pangs of loving someone who loves someone else.

The opera has a curious deus ex machina, Orgando, who is supposedly Oriana's uncle (which leads you to wonder why he did not appear earlier!). Here James Conway turned him into the god of Love, embodied delightfully by Alek Nikolaev. Nikolaev sang in English, and as if breaking another spell the opera wittily moved from Italian to English (with the subtitles in Italian!). And the ending, with its abbreviated dance sequence and the necessity of reviving Melissa and Dardano for the final coro was also wittily handled, ensuring that we ended on a lighter note.

In the pit, Jonathan Peter Kenny drew a strongly characterised performance from the Old Street Band and we got some fine solo moments too not just Philip Turbett's bassoon but other instruments. This was a small-scale but vivid account which complemented the production nicely.

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Jenny Stafford - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Jenny Stafford - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

James Conway directed Amadigi di Gaula for Opera Theatre Company in 1996, designed by Neil Irish with Jonathan Peter Kenny as Amadigi, Buddug Verona James as Dardano and Majella Cullagh as Melissa, and the production travelled to the City of London Festival and the Buxton Festival. Prior to Garsington's performance of the opera this Summer, this seem to be the last staging in the UK! Conway, Kenny and Irish have certainly not lost faith in the opera and I do hope that this engaging and stylish production wins the piece more adherents.    

I was pleased to be able to make my own small contribution to this production, and the excellent programme book includes my essay Handel: The Sound of Silence alongside contributions from James Conway, Jonathan Peter Kenny and Jonathan Keates.

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