At the age of 17, the young Georg Friedrich Haendel (or as he spelled his name at the time, "Hendler" or "Hendel") traveled to the Free City-Republic of Hamburg, home to Germany's greatest and most famous opera composer and producer, Reinhard Keiser. Serving as violinist and continuo accompanist in Keiser's orchestra at the Hamburg Gansemarkt, Haendel met and soon became best friends with composer, singer, and theoretician Johann Mattheson. It is said that during a performance of Mattheson's "Antony & Cleopatra" a swordfight broke out between the two over who would get to play the continuo (after Mattheson had just jumped into the orchestra pit to takeover the continuo after "dying" in his own part of Marc Antony), and Haendel's injury, it is said, was prevented only when the tip of Mattheson's sword hit his jacket button. But that is another story. Keiser immediately recognised the young man's talents and permitted him to write his own opera based on a libretto by F.C. Feustking, a hybrid of German and Italian language arias and recitatives, as was the custom at the time in Hamburg. Anyway, Mattheson later wrote of Haendel that "when he arrived in Hamburg, this now world-famous composer knew only how to write fugues and contrapuntal exercises...he worked with me night after night, laboring on the score [of the opera] in order to prove, as a defendant proves to a court, that he was capable of writing a clear and distinct melodic line." This opera, of course, written in 1705 just as Haendel was to turn 20, was none other than his only surviving German language opera, "Almira," an immediate success which was to receive 27 performances (a very high number for that time and even now) and later was revived several times in Germany (incidentally by none other than Georg Philip Telemann) during the first half of the 18th century. Thus began a wildly succesful operatic career which was to span 36 years.
Despite its obvious limitations (it was his first experience with vocal music) in terms of the incompatibility of some of the melodies with the capabilities of the human voice and the surfeit of continuo arias as well as occasional general awkwardness in melodic line, the opera is a work that deserves far more recognition than it has received. Far more significant than its image as merely "Haendel's 1st opera" suggests, "Almira" displays evidence of the early roots of what was later to ferment itself into Haendel's true cosmopolitan style - he combines elements of French opera tragique, early German singspiel, and Italian opera form in a way that neither Keiser or Mattheson were able to do, and the result is beautiful. Already, we can detect that suavity of style in such arias as "Schonste Rosen" and "So ben che regnante piu." One can feel the palpitations of the heart in "Ach Wiltu Die Herzen Auf Ewig Verbinden" and "Chi sa, mia speme." Several of the melodies in "Almira" are recognizable. For example, the A section of the overture was later used in the overture of Haendel's Italian opera "Rodrigo," the Sarabande in the 1st Act later appears in the Suite VII in g minor for Keyboard, an aria sung by David Thomas in the role of Consalvo later appears as "Combatti da forte" in "Rinaldo," and the African dance in the last Act appears as both "Lascia la spina" in "Il Trionfo dell tempo e verita" and of course the famous "Lascia ch'io pianga" in "Rinaldo."
Ann Monoyios sings the title role with great sensitivity, and her German is excellent, although her Italian could be a bit more idiomatic in tone (although that is probably how German singers sang it in Hamburg). David Thomas as Consalvo is amazing - the role truly brings out the basso profondo in him. Patricia Rozario is also quite excellent, as are Christian Elsner in the comic role of Tabarco and Douglas Nasrawi as Fernando. The Fiori Musicali play with sublimity and just plain sparkle - listen to that bassoon! The realisation of the continuo is particularly pleasing; I am particularly glad that a harpist was chosen to lead the recording, because he tends to use a variety of continuo instruments. There is one slight problem, however. Ever since the founding of true opera by Monteverde, composers throughout the Baroque age tended to write just the main melodic and bass lines for some dances and ritornelli - these were to be filled in by others for the actual performances, depending on respective instrumental resources. Unfortunately, this recording does not fill in those extra parts for some sections; 5 part harmony would have been nice. I am aware of this because I have consulted the Haendelgesellschaft score.
There really is no reason not to buy this recording. It's very cheap (3 CDs for the price of 1, essentially), the singing and playing leave no doubt in the mind of the listener, and it's a must-have for anyone interested in Baroque Opera. Actually, check that - it's a must-have for anyone who likes opera, period. Enjoy!