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Amadigi, Garsington Opera review – geometries of enchantment | reviews, news & interviews

Amadigi, Garsington Opera review – geometries of enchantment

Amadigi, Garsington Opera review – geometries of enchantment

A bold abstract setting for Handel's gloriously human score

Cracked genius: Anna Devin as MelissaJulian Guidera

In Handel’s operas (as, indeed, elsewhere in art and life) the worst witch may turn out to have the best character. Without the sorceress Melissa, splendidly full of evil ruses yet endowed with a generous measure of tragic pathos, Amadigi di Gaula might freeze into a static amorous stand-off between pasteboard nobles contending with a harsh – then, suddenly, kindly – fate.

Thank goodness that Irish soprano Anna Devin, as the lovelorn enchantress, graces Netia Jones's ingenious if somewhat hyper-active production of Handel’s 1715 heroic romance in Garsington Opera’s pavilion at Wormsley. In a work stuffed to bursting with marvellous (if too little-heard) music, her contributions shone especially bright, from the tender first-act largo “Ah! Spietato” – an exquisitely Handelian duet with oboe – to the last-ditch thunder and lightning of “Destero dall’empia Dite”. Melissa must pivot on a sixpence between pantomime villainy and heart-shredding solitude. Devin did. 

Composed in Lord Burlington’s Piccadilly house, early in the composer’s run of London operas, Amadigi revives a hoary old chivalric tale of fairy-tale knights who compete for the affections of the fair captive princess, Oriana. Meanwhile, malicious Melissa casts her evil spells to secure the hero Amadigi for herself. With its tight quartet of strongly-written principals (Amadigi, his rival Dardano, Oriana and Melissa) the work suits a socially-distanced staging down to the ground. Its melodic parade of da capo set-piece numbers may suggest masque or pageant more than interactive drama. But Jones’s stagecraft made clever use of the pavilion’s broad acres to craft a visual language for the plot’s arc of separation, searching, enchantment, confinement and liberation. Her busy and agile troupe of dancers – Handel’s nod to his French as well as Italian stylistic heritage – climbed, writhed, skipped and marched in perpetual, even sometimes distracting, counterpoint to the main action. 

Known for her video work, Jones banished any trace of picturesque Baroque design. She presented instead an abstract monochrome grid punctuated by black-and-white towers fitted with ladders, on a stage strewn with opaque symbols – giant letters, an orange egg, a statue-like horse (pictured above by Julian Guidera). The dancers served too as Melissa’s sinister, skull-masked little helpers, both agents and victims of her remote-control machinations. After the interval, as the light of a midsummer evening faded through the Wormsley pavilion’s transparent sides, video projections enriched the stark angularity of the set. Jones added a lurid tangerine to her monochrome palette. Orange was indeed the new black. I don’t think that her visual conceptions – half-Mondrian, half-De Chirico – or Jake Wiltshire’s lighting design imposed any arbitrary gimmicks on the work. After all, rigid geometries of fate, will and compulsion direct these figures’ progress; and a director has every right to seek striking metaphors for their conditions of imprisonment and ensnarement. Yet, for all the initial austerity of the set, Jones’s optical extravagances – above all in the second half – did result in episodes of sheer sensory overload. Then, this blissful music had to struggle to tell its own, deeply human story. In the midst of such sublime arias and duets, how much of a Cubist disco do we really need to see? 

That said, the singers and players more than stood their ground whenever optical illusions threatened to trump auditory realities. If Devin’s often sympathetic Melissa excelled from cackle to crow, lament to swoon, Sonja Runje’s deep, smoky mezzo in the title role (first written for the famous castrato Nicolini) added emotional amplitude to the rounded security of her tone (pictured above by John Snelling with Tim Mead). Vocally, she felt safe and strong even in Handel’s most acrobatic runs. Physically, Runje had a fair amount of gymnastic clambering and jumping to do, including a perilous leap from that statuesque steed. Even when pinned to the floor, though, she still mastered a string of glorious numbers from the early “Notte amici dei riposi” to the utterly ravishing cavatina “Sussurate, onde vezzose”. Counter-tenor Tim Mead’s Dardano could have been a stiff and formal foil for the central tug-of-love trio of Amadigi, Oriana and Melissa. But the choice quality of his arias, and the sheer class of their delivery, made him a more than equal partner. Mead mingled high-impact robustness with yearning sensitivity all the way from his opening defiance, “Pugnero contro il fato”, to the aching resignation of “Pena tiranna”, with its magical bassoon and oboe obbligato. Rhian Lois’s bewitched and caged Oriana (pictured below by Craig Fuller) takes time to come into her own – Handel’s fault, not the soprano’s. Still, when we really hear Oriana’s voice, Lois’s full, radiant tone, sensitively ornamented, touched the heights of some of the opera’s most affecting music, above all in the third act “Dolce vita del mio petto”. 

As Melissa works her dark magic on the lovers before admitting defeat (and dying for her pains), Handel’s orchestration thickens into an unusually rich range of colours. The English Concert under Christian Curnyn made every shade glow as warmly or brilliantly as it should. Stand-out work came not only from the woods but from glittering last-act trumpets that anticipate the festive sound-world of the Water Music. Mead’s slain Dardano returns as a polished and rather moving ghost, while young Edmund Visintin – as the “magical being” Organo – made his confident and charming mark as the deus ex machina who arrives to clear up Melissa’s mess of cross purposes and mistaken identities. Amadigi climaxes in the triumph of the hero’s trumpet-enhanced “Sento la gioia” – a virtuoso sign-off that drew the best from Runje and Curnyn’s band. By this time, as a merry pastoral ballet in far-from-clockwork orange closed the show, any lingering perplexity about Jones’s cryptic symbols had long since vanished. It was the easily-deciphered beauty, majesty and tenderness of top-notch Handel that made the twilit Chilterns ring. 

  • Amadigi at Garsington Opera, Wormsley until 24 July

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