Amadigi di Gaula, HWV11 – Opera in three acts to an anonymous libretto after Amadis de Grèce by André Cardinal Destouches and Antoine Houdar de la Motte [sung in Italian with English side titles]
Amadigi – William Towers
Melissa – Francesca Chiejina
Oriana – Harriet Eyleyu
Dardano – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Orgando – Zechariah King
Old Street Band
Jonathan Peter Kenny
James Conway – Director
Neil Irish – Set and costume designer
Rory Beaton – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 1 October, 2021
Venue: Hackney Empire, London
Hard on the heels of Garsington’s production of this comparatively rare Handel opera, English Touring Opera also now present Amadigi di Gaula (1715). James Conway’s production keeps the small cast of four principals within closer confines than Netia Jones’s more randomly assembled vision of this mediaeval chivalric tale, dramatising more vividly and tautly the snare which the sorceress Melissa has set around the hero Amadigi, his captive lover Oriana (of whom Melissa is jealous) and his friend Dardano whose own love for Oriana Melissa exploits to her evil purposes – with fatal consequences for Dardano as he is killed in a duel.
Melissa’s duplicitous nature – by allegorical extension, the illusions of romantic love which those such as Amadigi and Oriana must overcome – is shown by the formally sober and dignified Roman architectural façade of her domain. However, this is not all it seems, as it is caged off to the sides with panels of wire fencing, and is centred on a sinister all-seeing eye motif, like that of a sect. A door, high up, opens out not on to any safe support as a balcony or roof, but to a mere architrave, whilst doors on the ground floor later reveal the treacherous flames which Amadigi must pass through to reach Oriana who is imprisoned, Rapunzel-like, behind that higher threshold. A statue of Melissa on a plinth – as though a Roman goddess, or at least, a noblewoman – makes her seem stately enough, until she actually appears in a brightly coloured costume and headdress, showing her to be more alluringly threatening in reality. That plinth remains the focus of the production, as it variously becomes the space over which domination is fought over, the fountain in which Amadigi finds solace, his would-be grave, and the opening to the underworld from which the spirit of Dardano arises to admonish Melissa that justice will prevail.
Jonathan Peter Kenny conducts a lively performance of the score, sometimes bordering on rushed – it would not harm to ease the tempo or lower the dynamics in order to parallel the dramatic action with more suggestive light and shade. Ensemble is also occasionally ragged. But there are some appealing solos from oboe, bassoon (particularly in Dardano’s ‘Pena tiranna’, where it threads through the texture like Ariodante’s famous ‘Scherza infida’) and trumpet (in Melissa’s heroic ‘Destero dall’empio Dite’).
The singers tend to take a more measured approach, led by the steady account of the title role by William Towers, never flustered musically despite the punishments meted out on him by Melissa. Harriet Eyley begins as a demure Oriana with even and controlled articulation, but she demonstrates more fiery variety later on, especially in the flouncy ‘Affannami, tormentami’. Francesca Chiejina remains fairly reticent as Melissa until a more enraged display in her aforementioned aria with her flamboyant coloratura – just a little more of that volatility would have made the character more properly bewitching and fearsome. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones is a calmly confident Dardano, even in his betrayal of Amadigi, and so yielding little of the role’s wickedness, but certainly expressing a cool veneer of treachery.
Zechariah King took the small part of Orgando – conceived here as a Cupid figure – which will be performed by different local young artists as the production tours the country. Spoiler alert: his appearance heralds a switch into English for the rest of the performance, just as Melissa’s magic power is broken, once and for all, as though the fantastical, histrionic aspects of such Italian opera are jettisoned in favour of vernacular clarity, order and liberation. Seasoned opera goers will doubtless take the ironic joke, at the expense of their beloved art form, in good part. But, post-Brexit, it runs the risk of playing into the hands of the argument – current even in Handel’s day, as witness the words of Dr. Johnson about opera as being an ‘exotic and irrational entertainment’ – that it is a foreign and decadent import which a supposedly pure and enlightened English culture should do without. In other respects, however, with modest resources at its disposal, this production successfully recreates the spectacle of Baroque opera, with its meaningful contrasts, paradoxes, and make-believe, through modern media.
Further performances to 16 November