Friday 22 September 2023

Drawing us into Handel's magical world: Amadigi di Gaula from the English Concert with Tim Mead, Mary Bevan, Hilary Cronin, Hugh Cutting

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - title page of the libretto - London 1715
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - title page of the libretto - London 1715

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula; Tim Mead, Mary Bevan, Hilary Cronin, Hugh Cutting, the English Concert, Kristian Bezuidenhout; St Martin in the Fields
Reviewed 21 September 2023

Much more than a concert, an evening of remarkable theatre where every single performer seemed to draw us in with their vivid enjoyment

When Mark Minkowski's world premiere recording of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula came out in the early 1990s it was something of a revelation, so much terrific music. I saw James Conway's production for Opera Theatre Company in 1996 and then, virtually nothing. But in the last few years the opera seems to have come back onto everyone's radar, popping up in concert at the 2018 London Handel Festival, and then more recent productions at Garsington and English Touring Opera, directed by James Conway [see my review] along with catching it on-line from Boston Baroque [see my review].

The opera is from Handel's fascinatingly experimental early London period [see my article] when the influence of French opera in his output was greater. Amadigi represents something of a cross-pollination between the French and the Italian, before Italian opera seria took over as the main form in his work for the Royal Academy of Music. With its Deus ex machina and hints that the work might have been intended to have a greater danced element, a great Frencher atmosphere, Amadigi di Gaula remains something of a puzzle. 

But what cannot be doubted is the quality of Handel's music. He eschews the more dramatic effects from the libretto and concentrates on the emotional journeys of the four protagonists, and whilst there is fine music for all it is the 'evil' couple, Melissa and Dardano, who travel furthest and whose music is so intense, and has such remarkable power.

On Thursday 21 September 2023, we had the chance to experience the operas riches again when Kristian Bezuidenhout directed The English Concert at St Martin in the Fields in a concert performance of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula with Tim Mead as Amadigi, Hilary Cronin as Oriana, Mary Bevan as Melissa and Hugh Cutting as Dardano. The performance was the opening event of Handel & Hendrix's celebratory Handeliade taking place in London and at Boughton House.

A concert performance of a Baroque opera in a church does not seem ideal, but in this case what came over was the extraordinary enthusiasm and involvement from all the performers. The singers were 'on the book' yet all were vividly engaging and the whole had a dramatic impact that would have been the envy of any staged production. Such was the compelling musical performance, we hardly missed the visuals at all.

From the opening notes of the overture it was clear that Kristian Bezuidenhout took quite a dramatic view of the music and he conjured rich drama from his forces - strings, two oboes (doubling recorders), bassoon, two harpsichords and theorbo. But what seemed to matter was the way that the instrumental performers were engaged in the drama and thus drew us in.

Whilst the noble knight, Amadigi (Tim Mead) is the title role, perhaps the most compelling character is Melissa (Mary Bevan) who discovers that for all her magic powers she cannot force Amadigi's love. It was written for soprano Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti who also created some of Handel's other 'bad girls', Armida in Rinaldo, and Medea in Teseo. 

Bevan gave a mesmerising and compelling performance, fully equal to the character's range. Her body language was expressive too. In the aria that closes Act Two where Melissa threatens to awaken the Furies, we understood so much even before Bevan had sung a note. In this aria, duetting with a trumpet, Bevan was trenchant and riveting. Her Melissa moved from the intense line of her opening aria, 'Ah! spietato!' to the strong stuff of her final Act One aria. In Act Two, Bevan and Mead made their duet, with its surprisingly perky rhythms, wonderfully vivid, yet it was all for nothing and Bevan's final accompagnato and arioso for Melissa's death scene was powerful indeed. Bevan gave a star performance as Morgana in Handel's Alcina at the Royal Opera House [see my review] and this season makes her role debut as Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Rome; personally, I can't wait to hear her in more Handel opera - Teseo anyone?

What impressed about this performance was the strength of the recitative, each singer brought depth to it so that Bevan's opening words were sung with such relish. The whole opera became more than just a series of dazzling arias.

Amadigi is a noble prince and expected to act that way, which can rather make him feel passive and wet. It is to Tim Mead's credit that he made upright nobility believable and interesting. Singing throughout with bright, firm tone, in every aria I loved the way he shaped the music. His opening accompagnato and cavatina hymning the night was sung with a suavely seductive sense of line, whilst his more upbeat Act One arias featured a no-nonsense swagger to its dancing rhythms, this Amadigi was rather full of himself and remarkably self-possessed. But his final Act One aria, when Melissa has stolen away his beloved, featured a fabulously expressive vocal line over some strong accompaniment, powerful stuff.  Act Two opened with the magical moment when Amadigi stares into the enchanted fountain, to the accompaniment of two recorders. A lovely moment of musical magic, even if the character is too dim to realise the image he sees is simply Melissa's conjuring! Throughout the Act, Amadigi is torn and Mead moved between vividly enhanced moods, leading eventually to the final exuberant triumph, where he got to duet with a trumpet.

Oriana is another rather passive character. It is to Hilary Cronin's credit that in Act One, she made Oriana's goodness believable and it helped that Cronin sang with a lovely combination of warmth and clarity. Her opening Siciliana had a radiance to it whilst her first aria managed to be dignified but also believable. But when the going got tough, Cronin's Oriana was no wilting flower, she was rather feisty indeed. In her first aria in Act Two, Cronin really spat out the vituperation at Bevan's Melissa (here and elsewhere you loved Bevan's sly smile of relish at her own cruelty), and Cronin was similarly dramatic in her final Act Two aria, whilst in Act Three she got to be gloriously pathetic (in the 18th-century sense) before a moving duet with Mead's Amadigi.

In many ways, as Dardano, Hugh Cutting got the short straw. The character is under-written and dies off-stage towards the end of Act Two with a brief (but important) re-appearance as a ghost in Act Three. But what glorious music. He began in warrior mode, both arias in Act One strong and dramatic. At his lowest ebb in Act Two, Dardano realises that his love is unhappy and Melissa's powers cannot help, and the result is the glorious aria 'Pen tiranna' with its solo oboe and bassoon parts. Cutting sang this with remarkable power, combining passion with a superbly vibrant line, supported by lovely richness in the orchestra. Yet he comes back for more, and the character's final aria, when Oriana says she loves him because she believes him to be Amadigi, is one of unalloyed joy.

There is one further, tiny character, the Deus ex Machina of Orgando who appears at the last possible moment and rights everything. Here, sung with poise and not a little humour by Rachel Ambrose Evans.

There were plenty of superb individual instrumental contributions, oboist Emma Black shone in the many fine obbligato moments (Handel must surely have had a fine oboist he wished to show off) with bassoonist Niels Collins Coppalle also having moments to shine. Handel's use of trumpet was restrained, but when he did use it then we had great fun and Mark Bennett did too. And throughout there was fine continue from Joseph Crouch (cello), Sergio Bucheli (theorbo), Tom Foster (harpsichord). Yet this was one of those performance where every single instrumentalist contributed and the whole was riveting.

This was one of those performances that engaged from the first moment and never let go. Yes, the singing and playing was superb, but more than that, there was a feeling of engagement and sense of relish in the music. Kristian Bezuidenhout was a very active director, he and his performers really drew us into Handel's magical world.

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