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If I had to nominate a Best First Opera by a Major Composer, right now, right after Boston Early Music Festival's blissful June staging, I'd with no hesitation cite Handel's Almira. He was just 19 when he wrote it, and its a mark of his compositional maturity that 36 years later he was still recycling its tunes. (Rinaldo's famous "Lascia ch'io pianga" makes its first appearance here, as a dance number, two years before its first vocal showing in Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno.) Almira was written for Hamburg's Oper am Gansemarkt, whose polyglot productions mixed German, Italian, and French influences and texts: a recitative in German often leads straight into an aria in Italian. That's really no problem: the ear adjusts quickly. And if the plot became the template for the typical Handelian confusion of matched and mismatched romantic pairings, the mind just as quickly sorts out who belongs to whom; and if, too, the final acts plot twist--involving a shipwreck, a locket and an infant lost at sea--takes only the operas characters by surprise, the audience can easily enjoy the giddy, improbable silliness of it all.

That proved especially easy in Gilbert Blin's production. From the start of its first hour to the final notes of its fourth, all the familiar Blin touches--the charmingly detailed painted scenery, with its side curtains and perspective backdrops; the choreographed "period" movement; the unfailing impulse to entertain, to keep the show buoyantly aloft even when the comedy is low--were here in complicit profusion. Anna Watkins's costumes were gorgeously eyecatching, and Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante's Act III "Combat of the Continents" ballet (Europe wins) was a treat worth waiting for. As always, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, on theorbo and baroque guitar, led their banquet table of world-class period instrumentalists in some supple, spry and altogether splendid music making.

The singers, too, were a world-class lot. Festival debutante Ulrike Hofbauer made a strong impression in the ride role with her period-pure, tightly controlled soprano, while festival favorite Amanda Forsythe, warmer of voice and temperament, pleased even more as Edilia. The two leading tenors, Zachary Wilder and Canada's Colin Balzer (a longtime festival favorite), as class-divided rival suitors who, in what's like a happily ended Trovatore, turn out to be brothers, were well contrasted but both first-rate, as was baritone Christian Immler as their pleased papa. Of the two other starcross'd lovers, soprano Valerie Vinzant did nicely, but baritone Tyler Duncan, while looking imposingly at home in his Mauritanian royal robes, seemed less than fully comfortable vocally. In his comic role, tenor Jason McStoots managed to be genuinely funny and never tiresome. But then, there was nothing at all tiresome about this rousing resurrection of Handel's 309-year-old operatic debut.
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Title Annotation:UNITED STATES
Author:Dillon, Patrick
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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