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Colourful interpretation of a lesser Handel
on 6 November 2012
There has been some terrific work done in recent years in terms of critical editions, in the development and playing of period instruments and through inventive stage productions, all of which have gone some way to revive even the most obscure of Handel's operas and help restore the composer's reputation to the place it deserves. There was however a reason why Baroque opera seria went out of fashion, consigning all but a few of Handel's operas to obscurity for several hundred years. They can be frightfully dull. Even Handel, towards the end of career, moved away from the overly restrictive conventions of the form in preference for the oratorio, but even his late operas show a diminishing of interest and invention. Written in 1741, Handel's last opera, Deidamia only ran for three performances and it is not the most involving work by the composer in its subject or treatment. On the other hand, it's still Handel, and with a little involvement and invention, even the driest of Handel's opera serias can be enhanced with a strong and sympathetic production.
There's a tendency to take Handel very seriously indeed, but his works are littered with comic references, the composer recognising long before Mozart that there's lots of humour to be derived from hidden identities and cross-dressing in opera plots. That's evident immediately from the moment that Deidamia, on the island of Scyros, expresses her frustration that her lover - the great hero Achilles - is unable to keep in character in his female disguise. Having been sent there by his father to hide - an oracle having warned him of Achilles fate should he join the war with Troy - Achilles is disguised as a young girl, Pyrrha. Instead of picking flowers and doing some needlework however, Achilles is unable to resist his red-blooded masculine urges and is off in the woods hunting wild animals. In David Alden's production for the De Nederlandse Opera - beautifully stylised as well as humorously inclined - Achilles (a trouser role, just to add to the confusion and humour about the nature of the character) stomps onto the stage at this moment in a frilly pink dress throwing air punches, a bloody deer carcass slung over his shoulder with what looks like a few bits chomped out of it by the Greek warrior in his predatory zeal.
Seeking the aid of Lycomedes and looking for Achilles, Ulysses however stirs up the usual romantic complications that result in anguished da capo arias - "You are unfaithful, you do not love me" and "You have robbed me of my happiness" are sentiments expressed here and there are others along the same lines. That's not to say that some of the arias aren't exquisitely beautiful - it's still Handel after all - and, to take Odysseus' 'Perdere il bene amato' as an example, capable of expressing genuine feeling and emotion, particularly when it is sung as finely as it is here by Silvia Tro Santafé. That's the great strength of Alden's production - it might look tongue-in-cheek and visually stylised with little concession to reality - but it doesn't neglect to give Handel's beautiful musical arrangements the expression they deserve, and with Ivor Bolton conducting the Concerto Köln wonderfully through this elegant score, there's not much chance of it being anything but respectful and attuned to all the colours of the work.
Colourful, elegant and beautiful in their simplicity, the sets however do reflect the nature of the three main characters. Deidamia's nature is exotic, based around a tropical island theme of Act I, the little island of Scyros an Aegean paradise surrounded by a limpid sea that reflects the sun-tinted blooms of cloud in its clear blue skies. Achilles' wild and untameable nature is reflected in the jungle of Act II, while the Greek classicism and nobility of Ulysses is the theme of the third act's developments. There's maybe nothing naturalistic about the sets or the costumes - submarines that convey the Greeks to the island where they hop off and walk along the reflective surface of the sea - but it relates to the characters well and looks simply gorgeous from whatever angle it is viewed (and it is beautifully filmed here on this BD release). There are more than enough reasons in Handel's music alone for this lesser work to be of considerable interest, but Alden's stunning sets and the stylised costumes enhance the majesty and beauty in the music even further. And the comedy.
The combination of Handel, Bolton and Alden provides good enough reason alone, but the best reason for watching this production is for the singing performances. There are a few weaker elements in the cast - Victoria Cangemi's Nerea isn't always capable of sustaining a pure line and has a tendency to come apart on the high notes, and Umberto Chiummo's Lycomedes isn't the steadiest either - but in the three main roles where it counts, the performances are utterly delightful. There are considerable singing challenges in the roles of Deidamia, Ulysses and Achilles, which are compounded by the three of them having to find a way of bringing these character's fairly rote sentiments to life and work together dramatically. Silvia Tro Santafé, I mentioned earlier brings a forcefulness of expression and depth of sentiment that is perfectly matched by beauty and lightness of Sally Matthews' nonetheless robust singing and her eye-catching performance, each of them further contrasted by Olga Pasichnyk performance of Achilles' impetuous masculine vigour and enthusiasm. Although the aria form doesn't give much of an opportunity for these characters to interact, the strength of Handel's work is in providing just such a contrast of personalities, situations and emotional tones, and this cast really makes that work in a way that is simply spellbinding.
Beautifully staged, with wonderful colour schemes and lighting, this spectacle looks outstanding in High Definition on Blu-ray, but the HD audio tracks are most impressive. There's a brightness and clarity and luxuriousness of tone in both the PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes that really highlights the qualities of the period instruments in a Baroque orchestra. Directed by Ivor Bolton, the qualities of the score, the construction and rhythm of the music are all the more apparent and impressive. The BD also has an interesting 24-minute featurette that looks behind-the-scenes at the music and stage rehearsals, interviewing those involved, as well as a Cast Gallery. The booklet examines the themes in Handel's work in more depth and there's a full synopsis. The disc is all-region, BD50, Full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch only.