(Opera Settecento at St George’s Hanover Square, 24 March 2018)
Opera Settecento’s contribution to this year’s London Handel Festival was a concert performance of this early work based on the bestselling 16th-century chivalric romance Amadis of Gaul. Despite his name, this parfait knight was in fact half-English (the illegitimate fruit of a union between the King of Gaul and an English princess) and was brought up in Scotland. He kept up tradition by conceiving a great amour for Oriana, heiress to the English throne (charmingly described in the libretto as ‘daughter of the King of the Fortunate Islands’). And it’s this element of the story, rather than the knightly escapades, monsters and other adventures, that Handel is concerned with here. In fact, the whole thing takes place within the bounds of an enchanted palace and its gardens. That was the excuse for some truly staggering stage effects in the original production and, although we didn’t have those at St George’s the other night, we did still get to enjoy the beautiful music; not to mention some excellent performances.
So, that garden. It belongs to the sorceress Melissa, who has imprisoned the princess Oriana in the tower of her palace and used her spells to trap Amadis and his companion Dardanus in the gardens of said stronghold. (Note for pedants: Dosso Dossi’s painting, which illustrates this post, actually shows the good enchantress Melissa from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, not the wicked enchantress Melissa from the Amadis legend. If this troubles you, I apologise, but you’ll just have to accept it.)
Melissa has done her very best to seduce Amadis, who’s having none of it. Dardanus asks him why: after all, Melissa is very beautiful and has made this garden a verdant paradise with the sole aim of pleasing Amadis. Why not give her what she wants? Amadis refuses and digs out a picture of Oriana: here, he says, is his true love. Can Melissa really compare to that? (In the words of the original 18th-century English translation, ‘View first this Piece, then call me Ingrate‘). What a shock for Dardanus! The picture shows the very woman with whom he has also fallen in love! The friends are immediately recast as love rivals, although it takes Amadis a bit of time to realise this. While Dardanus goes off to ‘find a way to escape’ (for which, read ‘sulk in a corner’), Amadis makes noble attempts to leave the gardens, only to be impeded by troops of monsters, furies, demons and finally Melissa herself, who makes a final last-ditch attempt to win him over.
Needless to say, Melissa fails: Amadis swaggers a bit and says, ‘Nothing but thirst of Glory ever touch’d my Heart’, although we soon discover that this is stretching the truth. Once he’s fought off more monsters, and made it through the Enchanted Fiery Doorway That Only Admits True Lovers (everyone needs one), he encounters Oriana and changes his tune. In a flash of Baroque smooth-talk, he greets the princess thus: ‘Though from Enchantments I have set you free, Yet, dearest Oriana, your fair Face Makes me remain a quite enchanted Man‘. Now, obviously this isn’t going to be as easy as it looks, because we’re only in Act 1, so it’s hardly a surprise when Melissa turns up with the vengeful Dardanus in tow. She whisks Oriana away to the gardens and sends Dardanus after her, disguised as Amadis to trick her into declaring love for the wrong prince. Amadis sees this scene in an enchanted fountain and swoons in dismay. Oriana then finds him (oh, do keep up) but, on waking, he spurns her for her alleged betrayal.
Things are now getting so complicated that they’re spiralling out of Melissa’s control. When the disguised Dardanus encounters Amadis, and follows him to fight a duel for their lady’s love (off-stage), the sorceress comes rushing on in despair. ‘Heav’ns! Gods! Some Succour send. O cruel Stars!‘ For her plans have all unravelled. The noble Amadis has slain the perfidious Dardanus; and, in turn, all Melissa’s plots come out. She and Oriana have a bit of a spat, in which Oriana faces down all Melissa’s fantastical powers, but it ultimately does no good, because the princess is ultimately conveyed to the sorceress’s palace by demons and is about to die in company with the loyal Amadis. Because things aren’t quite complicated enough, Melissa then raises Dardanus’s ghost, who – shockingly – sides with the virtuous lovers and warns the sorceress that her time is up. Melissa takes her own life in despair, just in time for a deus ex machina in the form of Oriana’s (never previously mentioned) sorcerer uncle Orgando to descend from the cloudy heavens in a chariot and announce that everything’s OK and the two lovers can now get married. (It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they have to get married, because everyone else in the opera is either dead or a last-minute blood relation.)
So much for the story. I seem to be saying this a lot recently, but it’s a bit silly. Fortunately it’s redeemed by some very lovely music. The orchestra were under the command of Leo Duarte, who kept the pace rolling along at a good clip, considerably faster than the Marc Minkowski recording I’ve got, which added to the drama. There are some fine symphonies which would originally have accompanied fabulous palaces rising from the stage, or fountains bubbling, or gorgeously-clad crowds of attendant knights and ladies – the grand music at the end of Act 1 Scene 6 was a particular favourite of mine.
Our cast included some old friends from previous Opera Settencento productions, along with new faces. Melissa was sung by Erica Eloff, in a fittingly medieval over-dress with draped sleeves, and she did a fine job of combining the sorceress’s lovelorn desire with her vengefulness (‘Cerberus and Furies, Fire and Flames appear. And e’er you close my Rival in your Arms, Replete with Anguish I shall see you expire‘: threats aren’t what they used to be). In her first aria, Ah, spietato, she initially sounds rather mournful, her voice entwined with a single oboe; but in the B section her fury suddenly erupts and Eloff sang with a choked cry of anger, subsiding back into the da capo with a raw emotion that made you pity this woman – master of the elements, yet unable to win the man she loves.
She impressed again with Io godo, scherzo e rido, in which she mocks Amadis: a rather fun and fizzy opening gave way to an acrobatic aria which suited Eloff’s voice to a T. And her final aria gave me the ‘miffed sorceress’ music I was waiting for: Destero dell’ empia Dite is a rather glorious piece with a swaggering trumpet introduction and definite shades of the Royal Fireworks Music. Eloff turned in a furious da capo, not refined as such, but by Jove it was a fine tantrum.
The doomed rival Dardanus was sung by Maria Ostroukhova, another familiar face. To my delight, Ostroukhova arrived with a moustache, goatee and billowy shirt (as she did last time she sang a male role), and proceeded to stage her role – even coming on, as Dardanus’s ghost, streaked with blood, eyes hollowed out with black. She had scant attention for her music on her stand, singing from memory with aplomb, though her arias sometimes required her to dip deep into the lower reaches of her mezzo range. Dardanus not only gets the opening aria (Pugnero contro del’ fato), with some jolly fine coloratura, but also has the best-known aria in the opera, the exquisite Pena tiranna. Ostroukhova sang it very well – it’s a fantastic aria, with a haunting opening – but the problem is that this aria has been recorded by many of the greats (Max Cencic, Nathalie Stutzmann and Xavier Sabata, to name just three), and the bar is high. Interestingly, our Amadis, Czerniawski, has also sung it in competition. Ostroukhova was strong, but I did wonder if some parts were a bit too low for her, lacking the agonised colour that comes through so powerfully in these recordings. Anyway, I love Ostroukohova. Watching her is always a complete joy: she’s committed, reliable and dramatically delightful.
I don’t have an awful lot to say about my first newcomer, Ilona Revolskaya (singing Oriana), because she had the least interesting music of the four. That’s Handel’s fault: his ‘good girls’ are never as interesting as his schemers, jilted fiancees and enchantresses. Poor Oriana doesn’t even appear until Scene 7 and then her first aria, Gioie venite in sen’, is ‘nice’ without being heart-catching. That isn’t to say Revolskaya wasn’t very good: she sang prettily and I thought she was particularly fine in O caro mio tesor, with that gorgeous little breathily-broken line in the middle of the verse. And Oriana does finally get to show a bit of backbone in Ti pentirai crudel, standing up to Amadis’s accusations of betrayal. But, for the most part, I’m afraid bad girls are just so much more fun. I would love to see Revolskaya in something where she’s given music that allows her to be a bit more vivacious, because I think she’d be rather special.
The dominant voice in the piece is Amadis, probably because the role was originally sung by the castrato Nicolino, who towered over the music scene of the day in every sense (he was very famous and also very fat: he’s the one who collapsed and died just before the premiere of Pergolesi’s Salustia, causing a panicked last-minute reshuffling of roles). Amadis has no fewer than eight arias, if I counted correctly, of which five are in Act 1. Five! The role was taken by the Polish countertenor Michał Czerniawski, whom I’ve heard before (but can’t remember where). And he was extremely impressive. At first his voice sounded a bit like an haute-tenor to me, but as time went on it became abundantly clear that he also had a nice clean upper range and an ability to knock out some good, crisp coloratura (with one exception, in E si dolce il mio contento in Scene 7, where I thought there was some slippage between notes).
He didn’t strain his voice for crazy heights and the result was rich, mellifluous and with a rock-hard substratrum that, to be frank, you very rarely hear in countertenors. No hint of voice wobbliness here. He wasn’t always the most expressive of the singers, and he didn’t make much of an effort to add drama to the role, although most people would look a bit stilted when singing opposite Ostroukhova. And he pulled out the vocal flair when it matters, for T’amai quanti il mio Cor in Act 2 Scene 3, where he delivered his words in an angry tumble; and for the grand closing aria, Sento la gioia in Act 3 Scene 6, which fires on all Handelian cylinders and which I thought Czerniawski nailed. I’m definitely going to be looking out for him on the London circuit, although I think he’s just moved to Berlin, so keep your ears to the ground, German opera chums…
Yes, the plot is silly; yes, the deus ex machina is very contrived; but the music shows Handel at one of his most splendid moments of invention, and we were fortunate to hear a top-notch cast drawn mostly from the local London scene. It was a good night out and a great first encounter with this early Handelian gem.