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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.

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, September 2010

There are a lot of interesting visual ideas thrown around in Doris Dörrie’s Japanese-themed Admeto...Given the mix of indeterminate legendary and supernatural elements in the opera’s setting, the transposition doesn’t suffer from “relocation anxiety.”...The specters carrying blood-stained daggers that torment Admeto’s rest in act I can be just as faithfully be represented as a kind of clawed, starving oni, or Japanese ogres. The plot hinge of the misappropriated portraits can be exchanged for 12-foot-high, hanging masks, and various settings in the Thessalian king’s palace become befittingly austere chambers in an Imperial Palace. Translucent, colored scrims serve as backdrops, sometimes with artistically arranged silhouettes. The Mamu Dance Theater, under the direction of Tadashi Endo, serves a variety of useful functions, not only as oni, but especially as frolicking, mischievous sheep. Direction and blocking are up to the task, making not only striking pictures, but a series of well-staged scenes where movement and gestures never drew attention away from the opera...Tim Mead is a strong, affecting Admeto, with both Marie Arnet and Kirsten Blaise in top form...William Berger is bright and virtuosic as Ercole, while Nicholas McGegan and his Göttingen musicians are energetic but disciplined, and well paced. The camerawork is effective...The video employs a 16:9 format, while sound is offered in DTS 5.1 and PCM stereo. Subtitles are provided in English, Italian, German, and French. Also supplied is a 21-minute bonus, one of those bits-and-pieces soundbite interviews in which all the cast members articulate as though spontaneously the stage director’s view of the work.

All in all, I enjoyed this Admeto...As a Handel opera reimagined into some mythical Japan, it works brilliantly, but the new setting never gets in the way of the drama involving a group of people coming to terms with their reality and their feelings.

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