Under Martin Pearlman’s direction, Boston Baroque has typically presented one staged opera a year. The unavailability of its home venue, Jordan Hall, had made this tradition a less certain prospect for the current season, but the company has bravely forged ahead in its temporary venue. This past weekend it brought three performances of Handel’s “Amadigi di Gaula” to GBH’s Calderwood Studio.
Handel’s operatic estate is dominated by beloved staples that tend to command almost all of the air time — works such as “Rinaldo,” “Giulio Cesare,” “Alcina,” and “Ariodante.” Composed in 1715 shortly after the composer’s move to England, “Amadigi” has never been in this group and is spotted far more rarely. What may well have been its most recent local sighting came in 2009, when Pearlman and his ensemble performed it. They now deserve credit for giving the public a second chance to hear this worthy work.
The plot of “Amadigi” centers on a knight (the title character, sung here by Anthony Roth Costanzo) and his friend (Dardano, sung by Daniela Mack), who are both in love with the same woman (Oriana, Camille Ortiz). What might have been a straight love triangle is further complicated by the fact that both suitors are imprisoned by a sorceress (Melissa, Amanda Forsythe) who is bent on claiming Amadigi for herself.
The plot ambles along; love ultimately conquers dark magic. What the libretto lacks in dramatic thrust it makes up for in the emotional depth of the vocal writing. Particularly notable is how Handel presents his evil sorceress as more than a cardboard character. Melissa’s affection for Amadigi stands in perfect equipoise with her rage at his refusal to reciprocate. She almost earns our pity. Even cosmic omnipotence and having a phalanx of furies at your beck and call, it seems, can’t buy you love.
The music Handel conceived for “Amadigi” (or recycled from an earlier opera called “Silla”) is resourceful and often expressively charged. According to Ellen Harris’s biography of the composer, none other than George III sought out the score for Dardano’s lament “Pena tiranna,” itself a study in melancholy beauty accented by dark tones from the oboe and bassoon.
On Sunday afternoon, the third of three performances, Pearlman kept tempos moving and for the most part drew flexible and expressive playing from the orchestra. Director Louisa Miller employed digital projections and made the most of a small corridor of stage real estate in front of the orchestra. And all four members of the cast sang affectingly and with commitment. But at the end of the day, there was no getting around the acoustic limitations in GBH’s Calderwood Studio. All manner of technological marvels are possible here, but the extreme dryness of this space is still quite unkind to the singing voice, and it is not much more flattering for period instruments. The cast’s nonetheless heroic efforts were rewarded with a warm ovation.
To be sure, this studio has been a lifeline for Boston Baroque during its transitional post-closure season, and it has provided access to a world of streaming which in turn allowed the company to reach a new national and even international audience. That streaming audience will no doubt remain important in future seasons. But if Boston Baroque also wishes to please local subscribers accustomed to the sensually rich and acoustically vibrant live performances to which they’ve been treated over the years, the orchestra should make haste back to Jordan Hall. This opera, in that setting, would have been an entirely different experience.
HANDEL’S ‘AMADIGI DI GAULA’
Martin Pearlman, conductor
At: GBH’s Calderwood Studio, Sunday afternoon