Like so many artists after him, Handel’s big break in opera came from being in the right place at the right time. In 1704, the composer Reinhard Keiser abruptly left the theater in Hamburg for an out-of-town commission, leaving no score for a scheduled production of an opera called “Almira.” A libretto existed, sets and costumes had already been prepared, but a composer was desperately needed. The natural substitute, Johann Mattheson, was racing to finish a different opera. So the theater tapped the 19-year-old Handel, who roughly one year earlier had been cracking jokes at the back-desk of the violin section. “Almira” became his very first opera.
Composer biopics love this kind of story, and incredibly enough, its full telling would have to include an actual street duel with Mattheson, whose sword thrust may have been stayed by the pages of “Almira” in Handel’s breast pocket (I kid you not). But modern-day musicologists are less easily seduced by the romance of scrappy beginnings, and “Almira” has at times received a harsh verdict. “Very uneven in style, quality, and technique,” intoned one influential book on Handel operas, “with abundant promise but intermittent fulfillment.”
The artistic team of the Boston Early Music Festival sees things differently, and has placed its faith in “Almira” as a kind of bolt-from-the-blue, shockingly early statement of Handel’s brilliance. Stagings of “Almira” in this country are still quite rare, but BEMF is making its case in a scrupulously period production that opened on Sunday afternoon at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The work serves as the operatic centerpiece for the current biennial festival week.
After seeing Sunday’s performance, I think it’s safe to say that Handel’s mature masterworks will not be displaced anytime soon, but so what? “Almira” has much more going for it than its visibility and reputation would have you think. The score is studded with fiery rage arias, it boasts some remarkably imaginative instrumental textures, and moves at times with a forceful rhythmic drive. Indeed, it has moments of music Handel realized were inspired enough to recycle throughout his composing career, and he did just that.
Alas, the work’s libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking — mostly in German, with a few passages in Italian — cannot be counted among its virtues. Set in an imagined medieval era, the plot centers on the travails of the lovelorn Almira, orphaned queen of Castile, who must choose a husband to rule the kingdom. She loves her secretary, Fernando, but his presumed social ranking is beneath her. Two other princesses — Edilia and Bellante — are seeking love as well, but the suitors Osman and Raymondo have eyes only for the queen. Somewhere in the fourth hour of the performance, the loose ends tie themselves up so quickly and improbably that a few peals of laughter broke out in Sunday’s audience.
Still, despite its convolution, the libretto gives Handel plenty of dramatic scenarios to work with, and he capitalizes on these moments in a way that is astounding for a 19-year-old composer trying opera for his first time. The rage arias given to the female characters in particular stand out, full of rapid coloratura and felicitous surprise turns. Fernando, too, receives some passionate music when he is wrongly imprisoned in Act 3. The orchestral writing sparkles in several moments with Handel’s obbligato embroidery of the vocal line, an oboe, for instance, rising up from the pit with elegance and disarming beauty.
The BEMF team caught an unlucky break when Veronica Cangemi, originally cast as Almira, withdrew from the production because of visa problems. Ulrike Hofbauer, previously cast as Bellante, agreed to take on the title role. At Sunday’s performance Hofbauer sang honorably and with a pure tone, aptly conveying Almira’s despondency, if somewhat less the ferocity of her anger and desperation. Amanda Forsythe sang with pointed energy, lithe technique, and superb intensity in the role of Edilia, earning the biggest cheers of the night for her explosive delivery of the aria “Proverai” at the end of Act 2.
Colin Balzer was a sympathetic and sweet-toned Fernando; Zachary Wilder was a duly caddish Osman; Tyler Duncan and Christian Immler both sang ably as Raymondo and Almira’s guardian, Consalvo, respectively. Valerie Vinzant’s vivid musicianship made Bellante more than the two-dimensional character suggested by the libretto, and Jason McStoots deftly provided comic relief as Fernando’s servant, Tabarco.
This meticulous production by Gilbert Blin upholds the high standards Blin himself has set in his previous work for BEMF, complete with lavish costuming by Anna Watkins, and choreography by Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante that honored the Baroque hunger for visual spectacle. Underpinning the entire affair was the fine playing of the period specialists that make up the BEMF Orchestra under the direction of Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. They captured the rhythmic drive, generous lyricism, and — overall — the startling precocity of this score. In his more mature operas, Handel would of course gain more dexterity in his vocal writing and his musical characterizations would become more distinctive. But with “Almira” the enjoyment comes in seeing just how much was there, from the very beginning.