Handel's genius on display at Mahaiwe



The recitatives are in German, the arias are in a mix of German and Italian, and the dances are French.

A hodgepodge?

Not at all, says Gilbert Blin, the stage designer for the Boston Early Music Festival production of Handel's opera "Almira," which opens tonight at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.

"The genius of Handel," the French director says, "is wrapping up all these references with his own artistic instinct, and it adds to the, let's say, dynamism of the opera. It takes the best from the different cultures of the time, and the composer is making something already unique and in a way presenting his own musical take on all these references."

"Almira" is Handel's first opera, composed at 19, and then only by a fluke. Unlike the standard operas of the time, which dealt with Greek and Roman gods and emperors, Handel's work is set in the Spanish court at Castile, where intrigue and romance are afoot.

Almira is the newly crowned queen, around whom three love triangles swirl. Ulrike Hofbauer, who is Swiss, takes the title role.

Duels and dungeons are among the lovers' obstacles, but because this is a story of mortals rather than gods, there are none of the chariot-driven descents from heaven that have enlivened previous festival operas. Instead, Blin promises drama amid gothic architecture and the customary lavish dance.

The production comes to the Mahaiwe for a three-day run following completion of the biennial early-music festival in Boston. The performances, at 7 p.m. tonight and Saturday and 2:30 Sunday, feature an international cast of eight and the festival orchestra under co-directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs.

Blin likens "Almira" to "Don Carlo" as a "cloak-and-dagger" piece taking place in the same time and place as the Verdi opera; some of the sets and costumes are similar to those typically seen in the later work. Yet in the end, he says, "Almira" is a comedy, akin to Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."

The production is billed as the first in modern times to be historically conceived. There are no sketches or other records of the original production, which premiered in Hamburg in 1705.

So Blin scouted libraries in Germany for other sketches and stage and scenery designs by Hamburg designers. Prints and paintings showed costume designs from the period. By relating those designs to the libretto, he said by phone from Boston, "we could have a fair idea of what he [the original designer] had in mind for the production of ‘Almira.' "

More to the point, Blin said, this is the kind of show Hamburg audiences of the time would have seen and expected. Spain was very much on people's minds, he said, because the War of Spanish Succession was then raging among European powers.

Handel was German by birth and training and went on to write about 40 operas in Italian. He was playing second violin in the Hamburg opera orchestra when the company was preparing the premiere of an "Almira" by its music director, Reinhard Keiser.

Keiser received a plum commission elsewhere and skipped town, leaving "Almira" unfinished. Handel took over the libretto and composed his opera - his first known composition.

The plot thickens. In the middle of composition, Han del fought a duel over a dispute at the keyboard with a fellow Hamburg composer, Johan Mathe son. Ac cording to Han del's account, he was saved from a thrust to the chest by a score -- most likely for "Almira" -- in his coat pocket.

A curtain call for the composer, please.

Blin considers "Al mi ra" a fully mature work. Handel so liked some of the music, the designer said, that he reused it in later works. A showpiece aria appears twice in "Almira" and reappears as one of Han del's most famous arias in "Rinaldo."

The mixed German, Italian and French influences were not unusual, Blin pointed out. Hamburg was "very international" in outlook in 1705, he said, and while a kind of German national theater was in the making, opera composers and producers "were taking the best of the countries around them."

The Boston festival has staged two other Ham burg operas: Jo hann Con radi's "Ariadne" and Johan Mathe son's "Boris Godunov." Both subjects provided grist for later composers: Ariadne for Strauss, Boris for Mussorgsky.

They "had a good in stinct for good stories," Blin observed.

This will be Blin's fifth production for the festival (and in the Berkshires). He says that flat canvasses making up the set require only minor adjustments for use in the Mahaiwe after Boston's Cutler Majestic Theater. The Mahaiwe, he says, is actually close in size to an opera theater in Handel's time, making it "perfectly suitable for this kind of show."

On stage ...

What: Handel's "Almira"

Who: Boston Early Music Festival

When: 7 p.m. today, Sat.; 2:30 p.m. Sun.

Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington

Tickets: $95-$30

How: (413) 528-0100; mahaiwe.org; at the box office


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