By Earl Arthur Love
The most anticipated offering of this year’s bi-annual Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) was the North American debut of Handel’s rarely performed first opera, Almira. Composed when Handel was only nineteen, it premiered in Hamburg in 1705 while he was employed by the Theater am Gänsemarkt Orchestra. Surprisingly for a first effort, and like the majority of his mature operas, it runs to almost four hours, not counting intermissions. However, due to its abundance of riches, a dazzling production, and a few judicious cuts, the performance flew by.
The key to this success, apart from the glorious music, portions of which Handel used in later operas – including two well-known sarabands in Amadigi di Gaula and Rinaldo – was thorough preparation. At a panel discussion for members of the Music Critics Association of North America, stage director and designer Blin, Baroque violinist and BEMF concertmaster Robert Mealy, renowned Handel scholar Ellen T. Harris, and soprano Amanda Forsythe (who played the role of princess Edilia) described four full weeks of intense preparation. This included nine-hour days, six days a week, and singers in full voice throughout. This dedication paid off. The production captivated from start to finish.
BEMF staged the opera four times in the lavishly decorated 1,200-seat Beaux-Arts Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College, just off the Boston Common. The BEMF Orchestra, under Mealy’s direction, played with pulsating verve and exacting precision—a true jewel of an orchestra. The sets and costumes were authentic, functional, and awash in blazing colors. The movements of the eight-member dance ensemble were fluid and in sync with each other. The frequent comic twists provided an excellent foil to the often serious German recitatives and Italian singing.
The typically complex Baroque plot centers on Almira, who is crowned Queen of Castile by her guardian, Prince Consalvo. She has three suitors—Fernando, a foreigner of obscure birth and her secretary; Osman, who was to marry Princess Edilia but would now rather marry Almira so as to become king; and Raymondo, the visiting disguised king of Mauretania. Both Edilia and Princess Bellante love Osman. After a series of complex maneuvers, leavened with plenty of humor by Fernando’s servant Tabarco, the opera happily concludes with three simultaneous marriages.
The singing was of the highest standard throughout. Amanda Forsythe proved herself nothing short of sensational. She had the type of sound that makes one sit up and say “Wow!” Her voice was strong, warm, and ethereal, without a hint of vibrato. Each note was right on pitch. Soprano Ulrike Hofbauer’s Almira was excellent as well — polished in tone and solid of diction, though a little wooden in her delivery. The third soprano, Valerie Vinzant (Bellante, Princess of Aranda), sang with radiance and finesse. Canadian lyric tenor Colin Balzer imbued Fernando with passion and panache. Tenor Zachary Wilder’s awesome thespian abilities in the role of Osman matched his strong vocal technique. Jason McStoots played Tabarco with rollicking aplomb. The stage direction was seamless in its fluid transitions between singing, recitative, dancing, and acting. The only minor lapse was the lack of any emotion shown by Edilia when she learned that Fernando truly loved her. She could have at least smiled or clapped her hands.
Almira’s production team, which included music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, rendered a fine translation of Friedrich Christian Feustking’s intriguing libretto. By turns comic and profound, some choicer morsels include:
The power of Empire [is] built upon subservience.
To die of jealousy is the worst death of all!
He who breaks his word of honor
For the sake of money and power,
And who never intended to fulfill
His sworn pledge of love,
Will feel that on this earth
His longed-for joyful sunrise
Will instead become a dreadful comet of fear.
You seek perhaps to condemn my old age. Forgive me, but even if Etna is covered with snow, it still burns with an inner flame.
Reason must first learn caution
So as not to betray itself
When stealing another’s thunder.
The only readily available recording of Almira, with the Fiori Musicali on the Cpo label, comes nowhere near this miraculous production. One can only hope that the BEMF will record it for the wider public and posterity to enjoy.
Earl Love is the Montreal correspondent for www.concertonet.com, a feature writer for American Record Guide, and professional drummer. Formerly, he wrote for Opera Canada while working as a speechwriter for the Government of Canada in Ottawa.