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Handel’s Amadigi at Hackney Empire | Review

English Touring Opera, under the inspired leadership of James Conway for the last nineteen years, rarely chooses the most obvious operas to tour – this autumn visiting twelve cities around England, beginning in London.

Amadigi - William Towers & Harriet Eyley - credit Richard Hubert Smith.
Amadigi – William Towers & Harriet Eyley – credit Richard Hubert Smith.

For its first post-Covid production the choice has fallen on an infrequently performed Handel opera, Amadigi, dating from 1715, and chosen not just because of its small cast of four, but also because it contains some of Handel’s most inspired music, imaginatively orchestrated. Indeed it is the orchestra that gives most pleasure in this imaginative staging: the Broad Street Band under the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny plays stylishly, especially the oboes, recorders and trumpet, giving a much fuller and richer sound than is usual in Handel’s operas.

Amadigi is a cross between a “pastoral” and a “magic opera”, following the success that the composer had recently enjoyed with Rinaldo and Teseo, both also involving a sorceress. The plot dates back to the early sixteenth century, but Handel’s anonymous librettist simplified it so much that there is little left: Amadigi, who is the perfect male hero, loves Oriana, who, in return is loved by Amadigi’s friend Dardana. Amadigi himself is loved by the sorceress Melissa who tries all the tricks she knows to part him from Oriana.

Negotiating the coloratura of the arias, as well as portraying the complex roles of the protagonists are the main difficulties facing the four singers in this opera.

Most successful is countertenor William Towers in the title role. He has a smooth, expressive, agile voice and easily copes with everything that Handel throws at him and is the epitome of the heroic male.

The soprano Harriet Eyley uses her flexible voice to great effect and is always in role, and at times is suitably tragic. She subtly builds her character over the course of the opera to emerge triumphant by the end, not easy when the structure of the opera is one da capo aria after another, each separated by a recitative, plus the occasional duet.

The ‘villain’ and friend of Amadigi, Dardana, is a breeches role, sung by mezzo Rebecca Afonwy-Jones with some amazing low notes which have a lovely timbre. Unfortunately, her acting is hampered by a ridiculous overlarge green coat with huge padded shoulders which seems to restrict the movement of her arms. The friend who accompanied me said she looked like The Incredible Hulk.

Melissa, the sorceress, is flexibly sung by Francesca Chiejina, and the minor role of Orgando by Zechariah King – a different young singer being used at each performance.

The steeply-raked set and costumes are designed by Neil Irish, with evocative lighting by Rory Beaton: subtle and mood-enhancing but always allowing faces to be seen.

Director James Conway has another ETO success on his hands here. It is an excellent choice for those approaching one of Handel’s operas for the first time as the running time is two and a half hours of baroque musical bliss. Well worth catching on its Autumn tour – and the ticket prices are not expensive!

4 stars

Review by John Groves

William Towers and Tim Morgan share the title role, with Francesca Chiejina and Jenny Stafford singing the part of the sorceress Melissa, whose infatuation with Amadigi drives her to imprison his love Oriana (Harriet Eyley) and torment him and his companion turned rival, Dardano (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones), with shape-shifting spells and devilish devices.
https://englishtouringopera.org.uk/

Hackney Empire: Friday 1 Oct, 7:30pm
https://hackneyempire.co.uk/whats-on/

Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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