, June 2007
Axel Köhler’s production of Admeto for the 2006 Handel Festival in Halle places the action in a modern hospital, a setting appropriate for the intense emotions of the life-and-death struggles in Handel’s opera. With something of the same plot as Gluck’s Alceste (and, like that work, also derived from Euripides), Admeto features the self-sacrifice of Alcestis to save the life of her dying husband. Admetus. But in his Royal Academy years, Handle had two divas to satisfy and needed a love triangle, so into this noble and affecting story came the disguised Antigone, the Trojan princess from Admetus’s past, having been betrothed to him before the Union was ruined by Admetus’s jealous brother Thrasymedes. As disguise was always a crowd-pleasing device, both sopranos would have to be indulged, so Alcestis (rescued from death by Hercules) returns incognito, on order to test her husband’s loyalty.
Köhler, a fine singer himself and an experienced Handelian, directs with firm control and balance between wit and emotion and the production is consistently affecting. He knows how Handel’s structures work and often lets an aria exert its power alone. Other times, during an introduction, he creates suspense over whose aria it will be, and he has skillful ways of motivating a da capo return. Using modern stage idioms, Köhler places characters in situations that render the often conventional-sounding words harrowingly real. As Thrasymedes sings to Antigone, ‘Remember that I live in torment, and that my love for you burns with an ardent flame,” he is overwhelmed by sexual desire, has lost his reason, and is actually molesting her.
Alcestis in Act I and Admetus in Act II sing of their intentions to take their own lives, and as they face the harsh reality of tubes, pills, needles, syringes and other medical equipment, the situations are deeply disturbing. The hospital motif is continued and perverted as Hercules descends into the underworld to rescue the dead Alcestis. Hades is guarded not by the three-headed dog Cerberus but by a mad scientist with three faces, who has strapped Alcestis to an operating table and is removing her organs.
The acting is top-notch from a fine young cast (who look great in Marie-Thérèse’s hip and flattering costumes), and the period band under conductor Howard Arman could not be better. Countertenor Matthias Rexroth sings Admetus with style and feeling, though the voice itself lacks nuance and range of color. As Alcestis, soprano Romelia Lichtenstein shows reap power and flash in her bravura aria “Gelosia,” here transposed from Act II or Act III, while Mechthild Back sings Antigone’s music with great variety and suppleness. (Antigone has lost two entire arias and Alcestis one.)
The Thrasymedes of countertenor Tim Mead sounds underpowered, but he captures the character’s nastiness with perverse charm. Melanie Hirsch shows real promise as the page Orindo. Raimund Nolte’s Hercules lacks only flow in his recitatives to be an excellent Handelian bass, and, making the most of his one aria, Gerd Vogel is a sympathetic Meraspe.
An audio version (two CDs) is also included.