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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (18) - Handel, Admeto: Soloists, FestspielOrchester Göttingen. Conductor: Nicholas McGegan. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 30.8.2009 (SRT)

Admeto – Tim Mead
Alceste – Marie Arnet
Antigona – Kirsten Blaise
Orindo – Andrew Radley
Trasimede – David Bates
Ercole – William Berger
Meraspe – Wolf Matthias Friederich

FestspielOrchester Göttingen
Nicholas McGegan (conductor)

Doris Dörrie (director)
Bernd Lepel (designer)
Tadashi Endo (choreographer)
Linus Fellbom (lighting designer)

This production is the result of a collaboration between the Göttingen and Edinburgh Festivals. The story is that of the Greek myth of Admetus and Alcestis, refracted through the conventions of a 17th
Century Venetian melodrama. Edinburgh Festival Director Jonathan Mills trumpets the production as celebrating their international outlook: a German orchestra and director, a Scottish/Californian director and a Japanese choreographer. Great: just a shame that so little of it made artistic sense.

First, the singing: Admeto himself has to be the strongest character, both vocally and dramatically, and happily we had a fantastic interpreter in Tim Mead. Mead’s was by far the most distinctive voice among the three countertenors: heroic when necessary, clear, bright and very beautiful. His opening arioso,
Chiudetevi miei lumi, was deeply moving, and his interpretation grew in stature through the second act, culminating in the two great scenas of Act 2 where he comes to terms with his dilemma over whether to love Alceste or Anitgona. He also carried himself with the demeanour of a Handelian hero, no mean feat considering his surroundings.

When the opera was written Handel knew he had to provide roles for the two great prima donnas of the London stage in 1727: Faustina and Cuzzoni, known as the Rival Queens. This isn’t the only opera he wrote for them, but it’s the most successful as by 1727 he knew their voice types very well. Faustina (Alceste) had a gift for the dramatic while Cuzzoni’s voice was lighter and more skilled at coloratura. Göttingen’s two sopranos were well matched but well contrasted too. Kirsten Blaise was a magnificent Antigona, scaling the heights of her vocal fireworks with absolute security and managing pure silver at the top of her register: it’s only a shame that two of her greatest arias were cut. Next to her Marie Arnet’s Alceste was fine but not really of the same dramatic pitch. She was moving in the first act leading up to her suicide (she is later rescued from Hades by Hercules) and, if her somewhat lightweight declamations in Acts 2 and 3 were less convincing, then at least all the notes were secure.

Of the lesser roles the most excitingly sung was Friedrich’s Meraspe who made a real event out of his one aria with great articulation and vigorous colour in the voice. William Berger sounded good but he wasn’t nearly exciting enough for the great hero Hercules. David Bates’ Trasimede was much too whiny and weedy and ultimately just plain irritating, though he at least created interesting da capo ornamentations, something the cast as a whole were fairly weak at.

On the whole, then, the singing was very good, but what on earth was going on in the production? Doris Dörrie chose to set the opera in the world of the Japanese Samurai. Nothing wrong with that, per se, and it’s always refreshing if a director has a fresh concept that is artistically rigorous enough to make sense of a work: the trouble with this interpretation is that it shed virtually no new insights onto the opera and often it was just plain distracting. True: it did work in the sense that the stylized world of the Samurai, where court ritual prevented the free expression of emotion, is rather similar to the conventional world of eighteenth century opera seria, and the ideas of honour and duty are as important to the Japanese setting as they were to Handel’s characters. The costumes of the leading aristocrats, Admeto and Alcestis, reinforced the idea of their being bound up in their statesmanship and thus prevented from freely expressing themselves, and the stage picture at Alceste’s death was very beautiful, a red cloth being slowly expanded to cover the whole stage, representing her flowing blood. There, however, the dramatic integrity ended.

Dörrie tried to make something of the Japanese
Butoh tradition, a dance where the characters’ shadows (their spirits, the souls of the dead) are seen on stage with them, so a company of ten Japanese dancers was used throughout the production to represent various shades. This worked well for the opening scene where Admeto has a nightmare of spirits tormenting him on what he thinks is his death-bed, and the scene in hell at the start of Act 2 was quite effective. But who thought that turning the dancers into a flock of sheep was a good idea? Granted, their first appearance occurs when Antigona is preparing to pass herself off as a shepherdess, but that is where it should have ended. Instead they kept reappearing at moments that made no dramatic sense, seeming farcical when often the characters were singing of highly dramatic emotions, often ruining the intensity of the scene.

Dörrie’s central idea was her most disappointing one, because it could have been made to work so well. In the programme note she explained that once Alceste goes to hell she returns a different person, accompanied by her spirit, here represented by the
Butoh dancer Tadashi Endo, though from their use of the text it seemed more that the ghost represented the jealousy that Alceste harbours after her visit to hell. A fine idea perhaps, but it failed lamentably in the execution: for a start the ghost looked plain ridiculous, a cross between Mumm-Ra and a ghost from a teenager slasher flick. I’m no Butoh expert, but to my eyes he did almost nothing on stage except follow Alceste around and wave his hands in a suggestive manner. The opportunity to add a whole interpretative layer to Alceste’s character was thus wasted, and when the ghost took centre-stage during the final Coro it just seemed willful. Other risible touches included Hercules being made into a sumo wrestler, dressed in a ridiculous fat-suit that drew titters from the audience every time he appeared. He was also required to stamp the floor at certain points, but didn’t seem able to do so in time to the music. And on top of all this, the final scenes were set in a baroque English country house and garden! Why adopt the Japanese conventions if you haven’t got the integrity to follow them through to their conclusion?! There is nothing wrong with re-locating Handel, but at least do something interesting with the new setting, otherwise you might as well not bother. I increasingly lost patience with what seemed to have become a meaningless concept for its own sake.

Things were better in the pit, but only just. The Göttingen band is a crack team, and it’s hard to imagine this music being played any more convincingly than we heard tonight. It was interesting, also, to see the players arranged in a circle around the director, as it probably would have been in Handel’s own day. McGegan’s direction was OK but would win no awards for excitement. He is becoming another adherent of the increasingly pernicious Homogenous-Handel school: the slow passages are taken too quickly and the fast bits are taken too slowly. The evening would have been far more exciting if he had embraced more of the extremes.

All things considered, then, this evening was something of a disappointment, especially considering how electric it could have been with such singers and players at hand. Jonathan Mills invited this work to the Festival before it had had its Göttingen premiere: I wonder if he would still have done so had he seen it beforehand?

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th
September at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson


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