Amadigi review – ETO's small-scale Handel with yoga and walls of fire

Hackney Empire, London
The irrationalities of desire among a quartet of lovers are the focus of Handel’s opera in James Conway’s lively and fluent new production

The sole work in English Touring Opera’s autumn season is Handel’s Amadigi, in a new production by James Conway, conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny. During his countertenor days, Kenny regularly sang the title role, and has seemingly been keen to tackle the work after turning to conducting. But pandemic concerns, one suspects, have also been integral to ETO’s choice. By Handelian standards, Amadigi is small-scale and compact, requiring only five singers, one of whom does not appear until 10 minutes from the end.

The opera’s tautness, however, offsets considerable complexity. An examination of the irrationalities of desire, it depicts the relationship between the hero Amadigi and his beloved Oriana. They fall foul of both Dardano, Amadigi’s rival for Oriana’s affections, and the sorceress Melissa, who is besotted by Amadigi, though her magic is ultimately unable to arouse him. Conway tackles the requisite onstage wizardry with inventive glee as Melissa (Francesca Chiejina) conjures up walls of fire to prevent William Towers’s Amadigi from reaching Harriet Eyley’s Oriana and uses lantern-slides to deceive Towers into believing that Eyley has been unfaithful with Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s Dardano.

William Towers as Amadigi and Harriet Eyley as Oriana.
William Towers as Amadigi and Harriet Eyley as Oriana. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

Elsewhere, Conway deploys a conglomeration of east-west imagery that occasionally lacks focus. Melissa inhabits a Renaissance palace, while Amadigi meditates and does yoga at times of stress, and Eyley spends her captivity knitting scarves in anticipation of future domesticity.

The opera’s greatness lies in Handel’s delineation of Dardano and Melissa as tragic protagonists unrequited in love, and the performances here are strong. Chiejina is exceptional, whether attempting seduction, conjuring up Furies or giving voice to lonely despair. Afonwy-Jones, dark voiced and implacable, does fine things with the anguished Pena Tiranna, one of Handel’s greatest arias. Eyley, meanwhile, is bright-toned with some appealing coloratura. Towers sounds handsome but doesn’t give us nearly enough of the words. Sung by a different local young artist at each performance, the fifth role, of Orgando, the god of love, was taken by treble Zechariah King on opening night. Kenny’s conducting, meanwhile, is admirably fluent: there’s some lovely playing, notably in the woodwind obbligatos that track the protagonists’ thoughts.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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