Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association
, March 2010
Directed by counter—tenor Axel Köhler and conducted by Howard Arman, this video captures a live performance presented at the Händel—Festspiele in Halle, Germany in 2006. Handel’s Admeto is played by the thirty—three—piece Händel—festspielorchester and stars Matthias Rexroth in the title role, with Romelia Lichtenstein as Alcestis, Mechthild Bach as Antigona, Tim Mead as Thrasymedes and Raimund Nolte as Hercules. Admeto, which premiered in London in 1727, relays the story of a king who becomes tangled in a complex love triangle. Admeto’s wife Alcestis sacrifices her life so that her ill husband might live. When Angitona—whom Admeto had earlier refused to marry—learns that Alcestis is dead, she attempts to woo him. Just as she captures his affection, however, Hercules rescues Alcestis from the underworld. Thrasymedes, who himself loves Antigona, complicates matters. This video makes available one of Handel’s lesser—known operas, showcasing superb performances of exquisite musical writing. Alcestis’s Act III rage aria features coloratura that rivals Cleopatra at her most virtuosic. Lichtenstein’s final cadenza is a thrilling display befitting Faustina Bordoni, for whom the role was created. Mead performs recitative and aria with a pure and vibrant vocal tone, impeccable phrasing and highly developed acting skill. The production values combine historical performance practice with ultra—modern costumes and stagecraft. Niels Niemann trained the singers to use Baroque gesture alongside modern movement. Köhler makes several unusual staging choices, including Lichtenstein singing two demanding arias while lying flat on her back. Action is located in a bleak modern hospital where Admeto is recovering from a coma; in Act II, the hospital doubles as the underworld, where a cannibalistic threeheaded doctor functioning as Cerberus threatens Hercules’s ability to free Alcestis. Köhler’s direction pairs slapstick humor— such as Admeto falling out of bed while singing a heroic aria—with unsettling drama. In Act II, the courtier Orindo drugs Alcestis and throws her unconscious body onto a bed, ripping her stockings and nearly raping her. Thrasymedes intervenes, only to attempt to rape her himself during his subsequent aria. The juxtaposition of comedy and violence makes it somewhat difficult to absorb the production’s goals. Its aesthetic might be off—putting to those who are unfamiliar with Baroque opera or prefer a more traditional approach. Musically, the opera remains faithful to mainstream conceptions of Baroque performance practice. The orchestra is comprised of period instruments, showcasing the color and scope of an early eighteenthcentury ensemble. Da capo sections are ornamented tastefully, though somewhat conservatively overall. While arias are colorful and impassioned, performances of recitative do not always successfully emulate speech. While text expression is of paramount importance in Baroque recitative, several singers do not enunciate clearly, and the pacing often drags. In addition to a clear picture, the Blu—ray format offers stunning sound quality. The disc is organized in a way that makes the opera accessible. Each piece receives its own chapter, enabling straightforward navigation for classroom use. Viewers may watch a synopsis, which is read over a montage of scenes from the opera, providing a useful overview of plot and characters. The disc features subtitles in English, Spanish, French, German and Italian and is accompanied by a booklet providing a history of the opera and a summary of each act.