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Review: An ‘Almira’ to admire by Boston Early Music Festival

Saturday, June 22, 2013
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— The Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Handel’s first opera, “Almira,” is a visually stunning and exceptionally sung masterpiece.

The show opened Friday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and returns today with a 2:30 p.m. performance.

Everything seemed just right, from the sumptuous 16th-century costumes in a warm, autumnal palette of browns, reds, ivory and a hint of blue designed by Anna Watkins, to the often-sensational singing of the small cast. Even the sets, designed by stage director Gilbert Blin, were seamlessly mechanized. No stagehands were needed to change the scene from a throne room to a garden or a hallway or an antechamber. This made for effortless pacing. Lenore Doxsee’s lighting made all these exteriors shine with a golden hue.

The miracle was in the music. That it came from the pen of a 19-year old composer who was making his first effort in the medium was incredible. And, he wrote a lot of music. Besides the many, many arias, there were sung recitatives and several dance interludes.

Although the opera was almost four hours long with only one intermission, it seemed to move right along, with rich harmonies, a buoyant momentum and frequent music painting of Friedrich Feustking’s libretto. The sheer vitality of the score eliminated any possibilities of boredom or lag.

Some of this electric pacing, of course, is because Blin moved his singers around so fetchingly and because he emphasized the almost-comic undercurrent to the love-torn characters. Still, the action and music were constantly changing. The range varied from a sad ballad of great lyricism, such as tenor Colin Balzer’s lament as Fernando, to soprano Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira singing her lines with a speaker’s inflection. Since her role’s range was both very high to almost a low mezzo, it made for an interesting cadence.

The acting was convincing even as it presented baroque-era poses. None was more appealing and amusing than soprano Amanda Forsythe as Princess Edilia, who feistily counters tenor Zachary Wilder as Osman with what a woman can do when enraged by her lover. That Handel provided the zesty support for Forsythe’s coloratura resulted in the near-capacity crowd’s wild applause.

The 25-member baroque orchestra provided vibrant and often soulful support. The opera is sung in German, but the diction is so clean and the supertitles in English so precise, there is no mistaking what is happening.

 
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