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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Admeto, Re di Tessaglia, HWV22 (1727)
Tim Mead (counter-tenor) - Admeto
Marie Arnet (soprano) - Alceste
William Berger (bass) - Ercole
Andrew Radley (counter-tenor) - Orindo
David Bates (counter-tenor) - Trasimede
Kirsten Blaise (soprano) - Antigona
Wolf Matthias Friedrich (baritone) - Meraspe
Göttingen Festival Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan
Staged by Doris Dörrie
rec. Live, Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen, Deutsches Theater, 25-28 May 2009.
Picture format 16:9. Sound 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 DTS. Region code 0 (all regions)
Subtitles in Italian, English, German and French.
UNITEL CLASSICA CMAJOR DVD 702008 [181:00 + 21:00 bonus]
Also available on Blu-ray 702104.

Experience Classicsonline
Admeto, re di Tessaglia was extremely popular in Handel’s time, but has fallen out of favour so far today that I had never seen or heard it before. To the best of my knowledge, the only rivals are Virgin’s 1979 recording conducted by Alan Curtis (5613692, 3 CDs or in a 15-CD box, 6958622 – see review) and a DVD set of a live performance from Halle (2006) conducted by Howard Arman (Arthaus 101257 or Blu-ray 101258). The subject matter, adapted from classical legend, involves the self-sacrifice of Alceste (Alcestis) to save the life of her husband and her return from the dead. It’s a powerful legend, recalled by Milton, for example in his sonnet ‘Methought I saw my late-espoused Saint/Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave’.

Handel’s librettist adds a twist of fate to the Greek legend. As recounted in Euripides’ play Alcestis, the story is straightforward – Hercules rescues her from the underworld, returns her to Admetus and all live happily ever after:

Did not Hercules by force
Wrest from the guardian monster of the tomb
Alcestis, a reanimated corse,
Given back to dwell on earth in vernal bloom?
[Wordsworth Laodamia, ll.79-82]

In the opera, Alceste returns to find that Admeto has consoled himself with love for his old flame Antigona. The outcome is ultimately happy, but there are some dark moments that make this the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Dark Comedies.

This production, originating at the 2009 Göttingen Handel Festival, got a very mixed reception when it played later at the Edinburgh Festival. Though it has some good things to offer, I’m afraid that I have to declare myself overall on the side of those who decried it.

A reviewer for a music magazine recently speculated on the next operatic absurdity that we might be offered. As I recall, the unlikely setting would be in Outer Mongolia, with the cast on roller skates. Doris Dörrie doesn’t go quite that far with Admeto, but she transfers the action from classical Thessaly to Japan. I wondered at first if the cast had wandered in from Mikado which, surely, is not a thought that one wishes to stay with for one of Handel’s darkest operas.

The true reason for the change of venue seems to be the availability of Tadashi Endo to supervise the solo dance and choreography. The rest of Eva Zöllner’s page of explanation in the booklet, A western Baroque opera in Japanese guise, seems simply to be a rather specious attempt to justify the decision. I certainly cannot agree that ‘the reinterpretation of the work in the spirit of Japanese aesthetics is so compelling that the sudden recourse to the language of the Baroque shortly before the end ... is bound to come as a shock’. For me the culture-shock came right at the beginning and the change of backdrop as a return to normality. Until the patently bogus ‘chandelier’ was lowered, that is.

Simon Thompson, who saw the Edinburgh production and reviewed it for Musicweb International Seen and Heard commented that it was a shame that so little of it made artistic sense – see review. Quite.

Admeto lying on his bed of pain in samurai costume is only the beginning. When he sings of the torment that his illness causes, a troupe of near-naked dancers enters and starts to poke and squeeze him to simulate those pains, as if we didn’t understand what he was singing about. It should be enough that Admeto sings of the Orride larve, the hideous spirits of pain without our having to see them (DVD1, chapter 4). Even for those whose Italian is not up to the task, there are the subtitles – sometimes rendering the original in banal diction, it’s true, but you get the gist without the visual messages. The anonymous poet of Beowulf long ago realised that leaving the depiction of monsters like Grendel to the imagination renders them more frightening than trying to depict them.

Even worse is to come when Ercole (Hercules) appears as a sumo wrestler in a most unconvincing fat suit. We’ve had something similar in a production of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante, but that’s meant to be a comedy and the prosthetics are part of the humour (Opus Arte OA1020D – see review). Admeto is a much darker opera – Ercole will soon have to descend to Erebus to return Alceste to her husband, so we can do without the fat suit and the sumo stamping. The inattentive may not even realise that this is the great hero Hercules, since the English subtitles merely call him Ercole. With the happy ending, this may not be a tragedy according to the rules of Aristotle, but it should be bound by the rules of opera seria.

In the scene where Armida and Meraspe encounter Trasimede as he hunts in the woods, some of the half-naked dancers crawl in on hands and knees clad in sheepskins, just so that we understand that when we are told that she will disguise herself as a shepherdess, that is what she does. Simon Thompson thought the dance of pain at the opening quite effective – I didn’t – but wondered what on earth the sheep were all about, especially when they keep reappearing. One in particular makes himself hugely irritating at every possible turn. Even fans of Shaun the Sheep wouldn’t find much to admire here.

The other dancers prance around with antlers to signify that a hunt is in progress. We might have guessed that from Handel’s use of orchestral horns, though I have to admit that I did find the dance here much more tasteful and more entertaining.

Much of the action, including Alceste’s suicide, takes place as a shadow play behind half-stage cloths. Sometimes this is effective, but it does tend to break up the action and, sometimes, to interrupt the flow of the music.

The worst gimmick involves the ragged and ominous figure which follows Alceste out of the underworld – a kind of dark alter ego, or the Jungian animus to her anima. It served merely to pile confusion upon confusion. In the final chorus, Se un core è contento, this demented thing – actually none other than choreographer Tadashi Endo – dances alone in front of a shadow scene depicting the other characters.

After all that, it almost seems irrelevant that Nicholas McGegan’s musical direction lives up to expectation and there are no serious weaknesses among the singers. Tim Mead as Admeto is especially effective; I hadn’t encountered him before but I very much hope to do so again. It can have been no mean feat to sing so powerfully of his pain with those dancers poking at him.

My benchmark for the sopranos is to be found in a 3-CD Hyperion set, Handel Opera Arias (CDS44271/3 – see review). On CD 2 of that set Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott, with The Brandenburg Consort and Roy Goodman, perform four arias from Admeto in a most enjoyable disc of music from the period of the two rival sopranos, 1726-8: Admeto (1727) comes at the mid-point of that period. Neither soprano here quite matches the Kirkby and Bott performances, but both acquit themselves well, with Kirsten Blaise marginally the more impressive – perhaps because she doesn’t have to cope with such elaborate coiffure and costume. It seems a shame that her best aria, E per monti, e per piani, e per selve (Act II) has been excised from this production.

In all four excerpts, the tempo adopted on the Hyperion recording is noticeably faster than – and preferable to – that on the Göttingen DVDs. I must admit, however, that it wasn’t until I compared McGegan’s tempi with Goodman’s that I realised how slow he was.

Both soprano voices blend well with Tim Mead in their duets with Admeto, but, again, Antigona just has the edge in Alma mia! Dolce ristoro! (DVD2, chapter 16).

I felt that there was a fine voice, one well studied in the ways of baroque singing, trying to get out of the straightjacket in which the production placed him in the case of David Bates as Trasimede – did he really have to be made such a figure of fun, with one horn of his hunting helmet sheared off?

William Berger as Ercole sings well but lacks the last degree of authority that one might have expected – but, again, that may be more as a result of his wearing the fat suit. Meraspe doesn’t have much of a part, but Wolf Matthias Friedrich makes the most of what there is.

My final feeling was of a musically attractive performance spoiled by the foolery of the production. Oddly enough, I note that the Telegraph reviewer came to exactly the opposite conclusion – that the production and McGegan’s musical direction were fine but that Handel’s music – ‘Handel on autopilot’ – and the quality of the singing let the side down. This goes to show how subjective a response can be – it also indicates that you should try to sample this performance for yourself before purchase: you may agree with me about the music and with the Telegraph reviewer about the production, in which case this recording is for you. The copious applause at the end certainly indicates that the audience in Göttingen enjoyed their evening’s entertainment.

I didn’t have access to the Blu-ray version, but, with up-scaling, the DVD picture was more than satisfactory. The sound on TV was rather thin and dry but fine when played over a good audio system.

The booklet is fairly rudimentary – largely devoted to arguing for the Japanese/baroque conflation – with a short but relevant plot summary, couched in somewhat colloquial terms: ‘Trasimede is also in a bad way’.

This set is worth having musically, if you can ignore or even enjoy the pointless production. Otherwise, stick with the Curtis 3-CD or 15-CD set.

Brian Wilson
 


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