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Drew Minter
Opera News, October 2010

HANDEL, G.F.: Admeto (Gottingen Handel Festival, 2009) (NTSC) 702008
HANDEL, G.F.: Admeto (Gottingen Handel Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) 702104

Handel’s second opera for the so-called “rival queens,” Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, was Admeto, which had its premiere in 1727. Their purported rivalry—created more by the public than by the singers themselves—resulted most famously in the cat fight parodied by John Gay in his Beggar’s Opera of the same year. The operas Handel wrote for these reigning divas are as musically brilliant as any of his other works. But as a result of his attempts to structure dramas that would give absolutely equal value to two leading ladies, the rival-queen operas are dramatically problematic and strain credulity at times, Admeto not excepted. (Too bad Handel didn’t get the chance to see Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter go at each other in Schiller’s Mary Stuart a couple of seasons back when it was on Broadway.)

Add to this unusual opera director Doris Dörrie working in her Japanese mode. Dörrie has enlisted the choreographic skills and dancing of Tadashi Endo. His dance troupe Mamu Dance Theatre lends presence to many scenes—giddily lighthearted as a flock of sheep and a nervous group of hunted stags; creepy as the spectral tormentors of Admeto’s dreams and the torture-inflicting Furies of Hell; gently condoling as Alceste’s faithful followers. Endo’s own solo character is less clear. Beginning in the overture, he appears as a gnarled presence in torn robes, evoking—what? The tormented, wounded presence of love? Of Alceste herself? The character appears throughout the opera, often as a misstep in an otherwise spot-on production.

Many of the images are unforgettable, however. The lavish costumes of Bernd Lepel and the brilliant lighting of Linus Fellbom create stage magic. The formalism of the gigantic clothing (think Kiyonaga or Utamaro prints) enhances the beauty of the movements and illuminates the formalism of opera seria in unexpected ways. One particularly stunning image comes with the death of Alceste: she is discovered dead upon a red bier, and as her attendants leave the four corners of the stage, the cloth beneath her “runs” like blood until it covers the whole space, making a beautiful setting for Admeto’s next aria of mourning. Hercules, a pal and minister to Admeto, is got up as a Sumo wrestler warrior, but he moves in ways that accentuate the hero’s power. One slow-motion segment aside, the video work is essentially straight, with a number of close-ups, but not enough to lose the attractive stage pictures.

The singers give excellent performances, fully and expertly supported by Nicholas McGegan and his crack band of Göttingen players. Since so many of the scenes are separated by the descent of scrims, McGegan’s customary tight pacing is sometimes interrupted. (In the interest of full disclosure, I performed as a singer under McGegan’s direction on many occasions.) Tim Mead as Admeto is a countertenor of unusual dignity, which is terrific for this role. His voice has the depth to accomplish his breadth of phrasing. The role is rich in laments, and Mead makes a meal out of each one, especially the opera’s opening deathbed scene and the cavatina that begins Act III. As Alceste, Marie Arnet radiates sympathy, especially in her suicide aria “Farò così più bella.” Her voice is melting and full of color but a bit too high to give full value to Bordoni’s music—Bordoni was considered a mezzo—so the brilliant but sometimes low-lying roulades of Act II’s “Gelosia” lack punch. Singing the more consistently written role for Cuzzoni, Kirsten Blaise uses her pointed tone to underscore the devious Antigona’s character. (By this time, Handel had written a number of parts for his lead soprano Cuzzoni, while he and Bordoni were still in their first season together.) Countertenor David Bates plays Trasimede as a young, horny whiner, but his hooty, often ill-tuned countertenor fails to realize the brilliance of his arias, especially the superb horn aria in Act I. As Ercole, William Berger is fine—much more than just a blusterer.

John Steane
Gramophone, October 2010

A distinctive staging of Admeto that satisfies the eye and the ear

Admeto is such a rarity in performance that it needs no themed production to give it a new light and life. This production has nevertheless become famous, and will be identified for years to come, as the Japanese Admeto. With staging directed by Doris Dörrie, an expert in the drama of the Far East, and the Mamu Dance Theatre to add a further dimension, the little-known opera was a memorable feature of the 2008 Handel Festival at Göttingen and was revived in Edinburgh the following year. There, the visual element, I thought, was over-praised and the musical (the score itself as well as the performance) underrated. Filming acts as something of a leveller; perhaps it is that the previous acquaintance made it easier to accept the disparate-seeming features as an entity.

The score is wonderfully rich simply in its provision of one fine aria after another, though study (I’m sure) would reveal more in the way of formal balance and inter-relationships. The closely matching soprano roles of Alceste and Antigona (not to be confused with their better-known namesakes) are sung with a modest endowment of tone and volume by Marie Arnet and Kirsten Blaise, who compensate with skilful acting, unfazed mastery of the technical difficulties and a silvery purity which, if memory serves, made more difference in the theatre than it does in the recording. As the King (originally a role for the great Senesino), Tim Mead too often spoils the singing-line with uneven emission, but the voice has warmth and he sings with feeling. The Göttingen audience clearly loved William Berger’s Japanese wrestler of a Hercules, and amid all these high voices his well schooled bass-baritone is gratefully heard on each entry. Nicholas McGegan conducts the Festival Orchestra with a sure sense of style and no exaggerated stylisation.

The Japanese imposition (for, however gracefully managed, it is an imposition) works in ensuring that the production shall have a distinct identity. Handel’s operas present a real problem: the eye has to have more than a succession of solo singers to engage its interest. Under modern conditions, they give open invitation to producers to devise distractions. Miss Dörrie’s personal interests have found an unlikely channel there but they are genuinely brought to bear on the work; and to an exceptional degree she has succeeded in creating a distinctive setting, satisfying the eye and yet allowing the music to speak for itself from its due place at the centre.

John W Barker
American Record Guide, September 2010

McGegan brings stylish and efficient leadership to the very accomplished period-instrument band. He is also fortunate in a mostly quite solid vocal team...Mead, taking the title role written for the castrato Senesino, has an attractive voice and a steady dramatic sense, creating a plausibly regal (Mikado-ish?) yet tormented character. The two sopranos probably match well the rival divas Handel wrote their roles for, Faustina Bordoni (Alceste) and Francesca Cuzzoni (Antigona). Blaise has the somewhat lighter voice and is quite captivating, though able to show a raw emotional side. Arnet has more of a straight dramatic assignment and makes a strong character out of the conflicted queen, as both a woman and in masculine disguise (samurai stuff again). Despite his Sumo encumbrances, Berger brings real personality to the role of Ercole, meant to be as much comical as macho.

James Reel
Fanfare, September 2010

Should you purchase the Blu-ray version, if you have that playback capacity? The video quality is, of course, superb, but I’m not certain that high-def serves the backdrops’ pastels much better than the standard DVD; at least the many dark patches (costumes, wigs) don’t get muddled. As for the audio, the DTS-HD 5.1 mix gives the orchestra a visceral, dramatic presence, but places the voices at a comparative distance; one of the stereo mixes (PCM stereo or DD 2.0) serves the vocalists better. So, if you have a big-screen TV, do go for the Blu-ray; otherwise, the standard DVD will probably suit your needs adequately.

Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, July 2010

Like last summer, the irresistibly enthusiastic Nicholas McGegan will be leading a sunny all-Mozart program at the Hollywood Bowl this week. But there is a lot more to McGegan than his happy Hollywood Bowl concerts or even his more ambitious offerings in the Bay Area, where he has served as music director of Philharmonia Baroque for a quarter century.

Since 1991, McGegan has also headed the Handel Festival in Göttingen, Germany. There he performs Handel oratorios and stages the composer’s operas. Last year, he mounted “Admeto” in a startling Japanese-inspired production by the German film maker Doris Dörrie that has just been released on DVD. Dörrie, a Japan fancier, transfers a fanciful classical Greek drama to 18th-century Edo-period Japan. Actually, make that Po-Mo Edo, one in which the post-World War II Butoh dance meets Baroque opera. One in which Hercules is a sumo wrestler and Greek princes are samurais.

The cast is young, bright, handsome, versatile. The massive Japanese court costumes by Bernd Lepel are stunningly gorgeous. The lighting by Linus Fellbom is bold and ravishing (particularly on the Blu-ray version). The choreography by Butoh dancer Tadashi Endo and the performances by his Mamu Dance Theatre are an utter delight.

In other words, this new DVD of a rare Handel opera, despite some fussy video directing by Agnes Méth, is a major operatic event. Perhaps most startling is how dramatically probing and richly satisfying the production is compared with Dörrie’s often sentimental films.

Curiously, “Admeto” seems almost a riff on her 2008 feature, “Cherry Blossoms,” in which a provincial German widower travels to Tokyo to release the spirit of his wife with the help of Butoh, that strange admixture of ritual, mystic spirituality and fetishistic movement. In Handel’s opera, Admetus (countertenor Tim Mead), king of Thessaly, sends Hercules (baritone William Berger) to Hades to bring the shadow of his queen Alcestis (soprano Marie Arnet) back to the realm of the living. Meanwhile, the king has a fling with Antigone (soprano Kirsten Blaise), who happens to be a flirt in this opera.

There are many double-takes in Dörrie’s production, some meant to be intentionally humorous. The nearly naked dancers make a major contribution, be they spirits, the visualization of human emotions, the cutest sheep you’ve ever seen or a quartet of topless lovelies pawing over Hercules.

While all the singers are strong and true, Blaise -- a young American singer whom I remember as a luminous Woglinde in Robert Wilson’s production of Wagner’s “Ring” in Paris five years ago and also as the dancing girl in performances of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” – is a particular standout. Her seductive Antigone might have been a breakthrough, but unfortunately her website declares that she has “left the stage.”

Still, the unsung hero remains McGegan, who makes everything work musically and dramatically through vital conducting that feels as though it is controlling all the colors and movement on stage. Next season, McGegan has announced, will be his last in Göttingen. Fine. That means he’ll have more time for us. Anyone who can come up with this terrific Handel production and performance should be running – or at the very least closely associated with - an American opera company or festival.

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