Friday 29 April 2022

Strong musical performances as Anthony Roth Costanzo makes his debut as Handel's Amadigi di Gaula with Boston Baroque

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Anthony Roth Costanzo, Boston Baroque (Photo GBH Production Group)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Anthony Roth Costanzo, Boston Baroque (Photo GBH Production Group)

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula; Anthony Roth Costanzo, Daniela Mack, Amanda Forsythe, Camille Ortiz, Boston Baroque, dir: Louisa Muller, cond: Martin Pearlman; Boston Baroque at Calderwood Studio, WGBH streamed on IDAGIO
Performance on 22 April 2022, reviewed on 27 April 2022

One of Handel's early successes in a made for video live performance from Boston with strong musical performances

For its 2021/22 season Boston Baroque, music director Martin Pearlman, took the bold decision to build on the live streaming it had done during the previous turbulent season and the period instrument ensemble has been presenting its concerts in made for live streaming events where a live audience is able to watch a performance which works for filming too. The performances have been taking place in the the 5,000 square foot Calderwood Studio at WGBH in Boston, USA and all have been available for a month on IDAGIO. 

To close the 2021/22 season, Martin Pearlman conducted Boston Baroque in a staging of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula at the Calderwood Studio at WGBH on 22 April 2022, and streaming on IDAGIO. Directed by Louisa Muller, the staging featured production design by Ian Winters, production design by Christelle Matou, lighting by Elaine Buckholtz and the livestream was directed by Matthew Principe. Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was making his role debut as Amadigi, with Daniela Mack as Dardano, Amanda Forsythe as Melissa, and Camille Ortiz as Oriana.

Handel's Amadigi di Gaula is a puzzling opera. Written for the 1715 season at the King's Theatre, it built on Handel's success with his first London opera, Rinaldo (from 1711). He brought Amadigi back in the next few years but then silence. He never revived it when the Royal Academy of Music was formally established in 1719. To us, at a distance of 200 years, it can seem to be an archetypical opera seria, but with its theatrical dazzle (lots of transformation scenes) and an immensely sympathetic portrayal of the 'evil' sorceress Melissa (something Handel would come back to with his late masterpiece Alcina in 1735), perhaps the opera was not quite to the taste of the sober gents who ran the Royal Academy of Music.

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Daniela Mack, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Amanda Forsythe , Boston Baroque (Photo GBH Production Group)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Daniela Mack, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Amanda Forsythe , Boston Baroque (Photo GBH Production Group)

To modern audiences it can seem a puzzle. Only four main characters, all high voices, and one of those disappears part-way through the opera. Yet Handel applied to it a rich tapestry of music, and in the two lesser characters of Melissa and Dardano gave immensely sympathetic and moving portraits of tragic love.

The orchestra was placed centre stage, always visible during the opera with video screens behind. The main acting area was a strip in front of the orchestra, but this was expanded by a ramp around the whole orchestra so that the action took place in and around the players. This was particularly effective for Melissa (Amanda Forsythe) who in the early part of the opera was often present at the back, manipulating the action.

The video moved between displaying images related to the action to more abstract ideas. When Amadigi has a vision of Dardano with Oriana in the Fountain of Truth, their images appeared on the video. But at other times it simply evoked the mental state of the protagonists. Not all the images worked, at the opening Melissa announces she is conjuring a magical landscape, but the images we saw evoked for us photographs of the ruined West Pier at Brighton! Overall, the designers stuck to a limited palate, so that the whole production (videos and costumes) was in shades of grey, and at times you did rather want a flash of colour.

Louisa Miller, directing her first Handel opera, managed to strike a good balance between the desire to have something happening and opera seria's focus on the individual and we never felt that we were being entertained by unnecessary stage action; the stage's physical limitations probably played a significant role here. My only quibble was her rather over-doing having Melissa around in Act One projecting 'magical' gestures. Amanda Forsythe was a trooper here, doing everything required of her, but it could have done with toning down.

Anthony Roth Costanzo's voice is perhaps rather a-typical for this repertoire today, with its bright, narrow focus and sometimes slight edge to the tone. But he certainly knows how to use it, and was able to spin a fine legato line, and rattle off coloratura with the best of them. Most importantly, he was able to make Amadigi's goodness and nobility interesting, bringing fine intensity to the Act one vision scene at the fountain and to the scenes where he is imprisoned. 

Daniela Mack as Dardano provided a wonderful contrast of timbre with her rich contralto-like lower register. It is worth bearing in mind that Handel's original cast was a castrato, a contralto and two sopranos; whilst the voices are all high, having contrasts in timbre is important. Mack impressed greatly, Dardano is not evil as such after all. Her opening aria was rattlingly good, with moments reminding me of a young Marilyn Horne, and in her great Act Two aria, 'Pena tiranna' displayed a talent for great emotion within the confines of Baroque style, and with fine accompaniment from Boston Baroque's bassoonist, Allen Hamrick.

Initially, the two sopranos were somewhat closer in timbre perhaps suggesting that both were young women in love. Amanda Forsythe's Melissa was finely sung with a lightness, litheness and flexibility in her early arias which suggested youth and impulsiveness, but as the opera progressed her tone got darker and more intense and the way she depicted the sorceress coming to pieces in the final act was fine indeed. 

Camille Ortiz was dignified and moving as Oriana, a part that is essentially passive, but with Ortiz performance there was never any doubt of her love for Amadigi and in the second half (the interval was mid-way through Act Two) we really felt for her.

The very minor role of Orgando, the deus ex machina at the end, was edited out.

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Camille Ortiz, Boston Baroque (Photo GBH Production Group)
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - Camille Ortiz, Boston Baroque (Photo GBH Production Group)

You can understand why Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque chose Amadigi di Gaula. It is a relatively compact opera, its instrumental and vocal requirements are not outrageous yet within these confines Handel creates richly imaginative music. There is plenty for the orchestra to do, and they impressed greatly. We had an ensemble of 18 strings plus theorbo, two harpsichords and wind, giving us a sound with a fine depth to it. 

I do hope that lots of people discover the delights of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula through this imaginative and engaging performance, and Matthew Principe's direction caught the opera well for live-stream. The performance had the advantage of being made for video yet with a live audience (in a fine acoustic) giving us the best of both worlds.

Amadigi di Gaula streams on IDAGIO until 22 May 2022, further details from Boston Baroque's website.

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