Boston Early Music stages full version of Handel’s 1st opera

Even as a teenager, George Frideric Handel’s music was touched by genius. “It is amazing,” said Ulri
Ulrike Hofbauer, center, sings the title role in Boston Early Music Festival’s "Almira."
Ulrike Hofbauer, center, sings the title role in Boston Early Music Festival’s "Almira."

Even as a teenager, George Frideric Handel’s music was touched by genius.

“It is amazing,” said Ulrike Hofbauer, who is singing the lead in “Almira,” Handel’s first opera, written when he was just 19. “His colors and the way he responded and set the words to music. . . it is fully Handel. When I saw the score, I never thought of it as coming from a 19-year-old.”

Boston Early Music Festival is presenting “Almira” tomorrow through Sunday in what is thought to be the opera’s first fully-staged North American production. It will be sung in German with English subtitles.

Teen’s first opera

Handel was working as a violinist and sometime harpsichordist in a theater orchestra in Hamburg in 1703. After about a year on the job, its director, composer Reinhard Keiser, asked him if he’d be interested in writing an opera. Handel jumped at the chance.

Boston Early Music Festival

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington, Mass.

HOW MUCH: $95-$30

MORE INFO: 413-528-0100,

Working with a libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking, who had in turn based his work on a libretto by Giulio Pancieri from a 1691 Venetian production, Handel wrote “Almira.” Set at the court of Castile, it is a tale of intrigue and romance with Almira, the newly crowned queen, and her two princesses as they seek love from the ever-shifting affections of a soldier, an aide and a mysterious foreign ambassador.

Handel included many influences of the period, such as French tragic opera, German singspiel and the lighter Italian comedy, to create a spectacle of dance, duels, comedy and drama. Premiered in early 1705, “Almira” was a great hit with at least 20 performances. By the end of the year, Handel had set forth for Rome to begin the singular career modern audiences have come to know, including writing 43 more operas.

The opera’s life might have ended there, except Georg Philipp Telemann decided to revive it in the 1730s.

“He was a good friend of Handel’s,” said Gilbert Blin, the director and set designer for this production. “Handel used to bring him flower bulbs for his garden.”

But typical of the period, Telemann changed two arias. That caused some problems when BEMF artistic directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette looked at the score. Handel’s original manuscript score had been lost, but Telemann’s conducting score had survived. Stubbs and O’Dette decided to re-construct and re-orchestrate the score to replace these two sections.

“One of these was a rare ensemble for six singers,” Blin said.

Still, the look of the opera had to be determined. Blin had not even known of the opera’s existence until Stubbs discovered it years ago when he was researching other Handel operas.

“We decided the opera could work although the whole thing has 60 musical numbers. It’s amazing that a 19-year old could undertake something like this,” Blin said. “We can’t re-create the opera, but we could research the costume design.”

Renaissance style

Blin spent months investigating how 18th century German set and costume designers thought of Spain.

“Most operas then were about Greek myth or origins,” he said. “But this opera is in early Renaissance with costumes evocative of the time. It’s not usual. There will be beautiful ruffles and austere but deep coloring.”

The singers will be acting with the specific postures of what in the Baroque was considered a more polite, respectful stance rather than today’s more natural movement.

“It is more elegant, more codified,” Blin said. “Audiences didn’t want an image of their life but were aiming more for an ideal world.”

Overall, the look of the show will be new to BEMF with little of the fantasy of past productions. But there will be a lot of dance, set changes, and a ball to create a spirit of fun and adventure, he said.

As for the singing, it will be almost like vintage Handel.

“His personal style was already there at 19,” Hofbauer said. “The range is not especially high, but it is unpredictable. Some arias have a beautiful high line and then go to a mezzo low line and then back to high. I can’t settle in. I must find my way through it.”

Baroque stylist

Hofbauer, who is in her first professional role in this country, has a huge reputation in Europe for her expertise in singing Baroque opera, but she got the surprise of her life barely a few days after flying in from Germany. Hofbauer had been hired to sing as Bellante, one of Almira’s princesses. But the scheduled Veronica Cangemi, who was to sing the role, had visa complications. BEMF staff asked Hofbauer to step in and were thrilled when she agreed, Blin said.

“I’m on stage a lot and that’s a problem,” she said. “There are a lot of arias, a lot of ornamentation, a lot of material and a lot of work with the inner movie of what’s inside Almira, and I must learn the role as I do rehearsal.”

Blin has suggested that Almira had to find the angle between her personal life and her societal obligations. Elizabeth I is an inspiration. Hofbauer has picked up on that.

“She has many facets. She is a very passionate woman, friendly but jealous,” Hofbauer said. “She is a very modern woman. I can easily connect with her.”

Blin said Hofbauer is a very demanding, thorough artist and that she will be fabulous in the role.

Pre-performance talks are 90 minutes before and an orchestra fanfare 20 minutes before each performance.

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