Our last concert of the Boston Early Music Festival (my 22nd!) was a four-hour extravaganza, an opera by George Frideric Handel, called Almira in the beautiful Cutler Majestic Theatre. An all-star international cast assembled by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with stage director Gilbert Blin, put on a musical feast for both the eyes and the ears. So many things about this production were over-the-top: the lavish sets, the gorgeous costumes, the incredible singing and dancing, and of course, the instrumental playing — all the more remarkable in that Handel was only 19 years old when he wrote this masterpiece. To describe it as “Truly spectacular” only scratches the surface of this amazing afternoon.
What made the news a couple of weeks ago was that the lead, Almira, was played by a substitute, Ulrike Hofbauer because the person who was originally cast was unable to come to Boston because of visa problems. Hofbauer’s singing was excellent and what’s remarkable was that she was originally scheduled to play the part of Edilia, “a Princess of royal blood. ” I especially enjoyed the artistry of Amanda Forsythe, who ended up singing Edilia — a true superstar who sometimes sang extremely softly. But really, all the singers in this opera were outstanding.
I learned from the program book that Handel’s father was 63 years old when he was born, and that he forbid the boy to “meddle with any musical instrument.” Somehow though, the boy got a clavichord at age five and could practice without bothering anyone. At age seven he met his half-brother in Weissenfels, 35 years older than he, who arranged an accidental meeting with the Duke. The Duke then spoke to his father about the boy’s natural ability and encouraged him to study music above all other disciplines.
When he was 17, young Handel got a part-time church organist position in Halle, but a year later abandoned a University education to try his hand in the world of opera by playing last-chair violin in the Hamburg opera orchestra. He soon took on the responsibility of conducting the orchestra from the harpsichord. The opportunity to present Handel’s first opera, Almira, came when Reinhard Keiser, the leading opera composer in Germany, got another commission and another composer needed to be found for the existing libretto.
Although this work was composed when Handel was only 19, it is truly nothing short of a masterpiece. Credit must also be given to Robert Mealy, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, who reconstructed the performing editions from the original manuscripts, sometimes filling in missing parts.
“Incredible” doesn’t even begin to describe the efforts of this entire cast.