AdmetoGeorge Frideric Handel - Admeto

Festspiel Orchester of Göttingen, 2006 | Doris Dörrie, Nicholas McGegan, Agnes Meth, Tim Mead, Marie Arnet, Kirsten Blaise, Andrew Radley | Unitel Classica - C-Major

The main talking point about this production of Handel’s Admeto, re di Tessaglia for the Festspiel Orchester Göttingen in 2009 is clearly Doris Dörrie’s extraordinary Samurai setting of the opera. Notionally in the same period as the original 1727 production but translated to the samurai culture of Japan of this period (albeit in a highly stylised fashion), there are questions however about whether Dörrie’s fascination for Japanese settings, while appropriate for the likes of Turandot and Madame Butterfly, can really be effectively applied to the Greek mythological subject of Handel’s Baroque opera, Admeto.

Happily, the answer is, yes - it works and it works exceptionally well. If nothing else, the stripped back minimal staging and measured formalised gestures of the Japanese setting suit the conventions of opera seria, with their being no unnecessary elaboration or clutter to distract from the virtuoso solo singing. But with the bold lighting, coloured backgrounds, silk screens and shadow play, not to mention the extraordinary use of Takashi Endo’s Japanese butoh dancers (most of them almost entirely naked), the director manages to make the emotional content of the subject tangible as well as heightened.

That subject is a mythological one that is well covered in opera, particularly in opera seria - the story of Admetus, the king of Thessaly, whose life is spared from a fatal illness by the sacrifice of his wife Alcestes. Gluck’s opera Alceste covers the same story in a rather cut-down form without the Antigone subplot (Robert Wilson’s minimalist production of Gluck’s Alceste from the Châtelet Theatre in Paris, available on DVD, compares favourably with the production of Admeto here), but the storyline is much more involved in Handel’s version. To their credit of the director and producer, the staging here is magnificent, bringing out depths in the relationships and conflicts between the characters, particularly in the case of Alceste’s transformation into a samurai warrior accompanied by the long black-haired ghostly form of Endo’s butoh dancer representing her Jealousy. The sight of Ercole (Hercules) as a sumo wrestler in a foam fat-suit may however take more getting used to. The production is not without humour and may not be to a traditionalist’s taste, but it never detracts from the drama or the characterisation.

Tim Mead is fine as Admeto, but more so than the two male altos, it’s the female roles - Marie Arnot as Alceste and particularly Kirsten Blaise as Antigone - that have the chance here to show a greater emotional and vocal range, and the chance to put some strong acting behind their parts as well. Using period instruments (happily resisting any urge to include traditional Japanese instrumentation), the Festspiel Orchester of Göttingen under the direction of Nicholas McGegan is also noteworthy.

The specifications of the Blu-ray are impressive - a 1080/60i, 16:9 encode, and a sparkling, vibrant DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that far surpasses the limited distribution of the PCM 2.0 mix. There is not a great deal of detail in the staging to benefit from the High Definition transfer, but the reproduction of the vivid and striking colour schemes is nothing short of stunning. Subtitles are in a slightly small font (in Italian, English, German and French), and occasionally move to the top of the screen when necessary so as not to obscure the performers. The BD comes with a thin booklet giving a synopsis and information on the production, but a 21-minute featurette presents this better in the form of interviews with all the performers and the production team.