Thank goodness Irish soprano Anna Devin, as a loving enchantress, graces Netia Jones’ ingenious yet somewhat hyperactive production of Handel’s heroic romance of 1715 in the Garsington Opera House in Wormsley. In a work crammed to the brim with marvelous music (although too little heard), his contributions have shone with a particularly lively brilliance, since the tender largo of the first act “Ah! Spietato ”- a deliciously Handelian duo with oboe – to the thunder and the ultimate lightning of“ Destero dall’empia Dite ”. Melissa must pivot six pence between the meanness of pantomime and heartbreaking loneliness. Devin did.
Composed in Lord Burlington’s Piccadilly House, at the start of the composer’s London opera series, Amadigi revives an old tale of chivalry of fairytale knights who vie for the affections of the beautiful captive princess, Oriana. Meanwhile, the villainous Melissa casts her evil spells to secure the hero Amadigi for herself. With its tight quartet of strongly written principles (Amadigi, his rival Dardano, Oriana and Melissa), the work is suitable for a socially distanced staging down to the ground. His melodic parade of da capo fixed part numbers may suggest a mask or pageant more than an interactive drama. But Jones’ staging cleverly used the pavilion’s vast acres to create a visual language for the arc of separation, search, enchantment, containment, and release of intrigue. His troop of busy and agile dancers – Handel’s nod to his French and Italian stylistic heritage – climbed, twisted, hopped and marched in perpetual, even sometimes distracting, counterpoint to the main action.
Known for her video work, Jones has banished all traces of quaint Baroque design. Instead, it featured an abstract monochrome grid punctuated by black-and-white towers with ladders, on a stage dotted with opaque symbols – giant letters, an orange egg, a horse in the shape of a statue. [pictured above by Julian Guidera]. The dancers also served as grim little assistants in skull masks for Melissa, both agents and victims of her remote-controlled machinations. After the intermission, as the light of a summer evening faded through the transparent sides of the Wormsley Pavilion, video projections enriched the austere angularity of the ensemble. Jones added a sinister tangerine to his monochrome palette. Orange was the new black. I don’t think his visual designs – half Mondrian, half De Chirico – or Jake Wiltshire’s lighting design imposed any arbitrary gimmicks at work. After all, the rigid geometries of fate, will and compulsion direct the progress of these figures; and a director has every right to seek out vivid metaphors for their conditions of imprisonment and entrapment. Yet despite all the initial austerity of the ensemble, Jones’ optical extravagances – especially in the second half – resulted in episodes of sheer sensory overload. Then, this blessed music had to struggle to tell its own deeply human story. Amid such sublime arias and duets, what part of a Cubist nightclub do we really need to see?
That said, singers and gamers have more than held their own whenever optical illusions threatened to trump auditory realities. While Devin’s often sympathetic Melissa excelled from cackling to crow, wailing to fainting, Sonja Runje’s deep and smoky mezzo in the title role (written first for the famous castrato Nicolini) added an extra emotional amplitude to the rounded security of his tone. [pictured above with Tim Mead by John Snelling]. Vocally, she felt safe and strong even in Handel’s most acrobatic races. Physically, Runje had quite a bit of gymnastics to climb and jump, including a somersault from this sculptural horse. Even when she was nailed to the ground, she still mastered a series of glorious acts, from the first “Notte amici dei riposi” to the lovely cavatina “Sussurate, onde vezzose”. Countertenor Tim Mead’s Dardano could have been a stiff and formal foil for the center tug-of-war trio of Amadigi, Oriana and Melissa. But the quality of choice of his tunes, and the pure class of their performance, made him a more than equal partner. Mead has blended high impact robustness with fiery sensibility from his first challenge, “Pugnero contro il fato”, to the painful resignation of “Pena tiranna”, with his magical bassoon and obligatory oboe. Oriana bewitched and caged by Rhian Lois [pictured below by Craig Fuller] takes time to flourish – Handel’s fault, not the soprano’s. Yet when one truly hears Oriana’s voice, Lois’ full and radiant timbre, delicately ornamented, touched the heights of some of the most touching music in opera, especially in the third act “Dolce vita del mio petto” .
As Melissa works her dark magic on the lovers before admitting her defeat (and dying for her pains), Handel’s orchestration thickens into an unusually rich range of colors. The English concert conducted by Christian Curnyn made every nuance shine as warmly or brilliantly as it should. The remarkable work came not only from the woodwinds, but also from the scintillating trumpets of the last act which anticipate the festive sonic world of the Water music. Dardano, slain by Mead, returns as a polished and rather moving ghost, while young Edmund Visintin – as the “magical being” Organo – made his mark confident and charming as Deus Ex machina who arrives to clear up Melissa’s mess of crossed intentions and mistaken identities. Amadigi culminates with the triumph of the hero’s trumpet “Sento la gioia” – a virtuoso signature that made the most of Runje and Curnyn’s group. By then, as a cheerful pastoral ballet in a far from mechanical orange closed the show, any lingering bewilderment about Jones’ cryptic symbols had long since vanished. It was the easily deciphered beauty, majesty and tenderness of the excellent Handel that made the Twilight Chilterns sound.