In that mythical museum of great composers, surely there is a special room reserved for prodigies. Mozart would be front and center. Mendelssohn and Chopin would no doubt be there, too. But George Frideric Handel?
We tend to imagine Handel as he’s portrayed in those stolid portraits from the later years, or through the well-proportioned sublimity of his mature works. But now, say Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette — artistic directors of the Boston Early Music Festival — the time has come to complicate that picture, to encounter the composer as a young and brashly brilliant upstart, in short, to take in Handel’s very first opera: a dazzlingly virtuosic work from 1705 titled “Almira.”
A new staging of “Almira,” billed as its first modern-day historically conceived production, will open on June 9 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. It will serve as the centerpiece of this year’s Boston Early Music Festival — the extravagant parade of opera, orchestral concerts, chamber music, workshops, and symposia that, for one week every other year, turns Boston into the epicenter of the early music world.
“Almira” is among Handel’s very first surviving compositions, written and performed when he was just 19, working as a violinist and harpsichordist at the opera in Hamburg. Those circumstances alone might suggest a curiosity item, an example of juvenilia interesting mostly because of the composer Handel would later become. Far from it, says O’Dette.
“My first impression of the music was utter astonishment,” he recalled recently by phone. “From the first page of the overture, it just overflows with genius and invention. You can’t believe that an overture of this brilliance could have been written as Handel’s first attempt, because most composers never achieve this level of invention after a whole career. And it goes on and on and on.”
Stubbs concurred: “Like everyone else, I knew ‘Messiah’ and the late oratorios, and there is a perfection and balance and maturity to those works that everyone appreciates. But what I wasn’t ready for when I got the young works in my hands was that they are not a less formed version of who he was, but a more visceral one.”
“ ‘Almira,’ ’’ Stubbs continued, “should by all rights shift our perception of Handel. [This is not] the same comfortable, podgy, stolid, solitary, porcine 50-year-old man who produced ‘Messiah.’ ”
Performances of “Almira,” whose German and Italian libretto centers on a love-triangle plot set at the Spanish court, have been scarce in the United States. The neglect may be due in part to some of the inherited biases in older Handel scholarship, and a certain skepticism among musicologists toward the particular mixture of styles found in many works linked to the Hamburg Opera in that era. This mixture might include, for instance, French dance music, Venetian comic characters, and German lowbrow humor. But the BEMF team has argued it is precisely this stylistic heterogeneity that creates the vitality of the Hamburg repertoire, building its case in recent years through stagings of Conradi’s “Ariadne” (in 2003) and Mathesson’s “Boris Goudenow” (in 2005). This year’s “Almira” extends this
BEMF-Hamburg line of exploration.
Interestingly, Handel’s original manuscript score has been lost; the music of “Almira” survived only through a conducting score used at a 1732 revival of the work led by Telemann. Making matters more complicated, in a practice not uncommon at the time, Telemann trimmed “Almira” for his performance — possibly interpolating some of his own music — and in the process simply ripped out two passages from the score. For the BEMF production, Stubbs and O’Dette chose to speculatively reconstruct what Telemann removed, aided by the recent discovery of a vocal and continuo part for a crucial rage aria — “Ingrato, spietato” — which amazingly turned up in a high school library in Jever, Germany.
As in past BEMF productions, stage director Gilbert Blin will aim to re-create the world of the original “Almira” as closely as possible. In this case that means presenting the opera’s portrait of Spain in the late Middle Ages, as imagined by residents of Hamburg in 1705. Speaking by phone, Blin warns “even our traditional early music fan should be ready for a surprise, because it does not look like what we know even from most Baroque Handel operas. It’s another universe.”
Beyond “Almira,” this year’s festival will reprise BEMF’s double-bill of Charpentier chamber operas and will also offer 16 festival concerts alongside a wealth of smaller fringe events in churches and other venues across the city. Among the visiting performers will be soprano Dame Emma Kirkby, gambist Jordi Savall, and the Hilliard Ensemble. In one program of particular note, Amandine Beyer and Milos Valent will perform on Mozart’s own violin and viola, representing the first time these instruments will be heard in North America. They will be joined by fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and clarinetist Eric Hoeprich in a program of Mozart chamber works on June 10 in Jordan Hall.
Before three of the four “Almira” performances, the noted MIT-based Handel scholar Ellen Harris will deliver introductory talks. Speaking by phone, Harris said that even she has never seen the work staged, though she has studied the score closely enough to identify several passages that Handel repurposed in far better known works of later years. “I’m over the moon,” she said simply. “ ‘Almira’ is the font, the origin of it all.”