Live: Amadigi, Covent Garden, London

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The Independent Culture
After ENO's Ariodante and Glyndebourne's Theodora, now Opera Theatre Company (Dublin) brings a "semi-staged version" of Amadigi to the BOC Covent Garden Festival: did Handel, even at the height of his popularity, ever have three operas playing simultaneously? Amadigi is the third Handel opera OTC has brought to Covent Garden, and James Conway's production has the virtues of its wildly successful predecessors: the ability to generate emotion on a stage too small to swing a cat and intense performances from singers whose command of seria idioms supports a powerful stage presence. Meanwhile Seamus Crimmins produces wonderfully flexible playing from a pocket-sized orchestra, here a dozen or so players calling themselves the London Baroque Sinfonia.

All this was warmly received at St Clement Danes Church on Wednesday. Yet this seems to me the weakest of OTC's Handel shows. In his programme note, Conway writes persuasively about "the vividness and authenticity of the emotions". Strange, then, that he feels the need to guy his characters. Jonathan Peter Kenny's Amadigi emerges in military tunic, which, as his emotions unravel, he unbuttons to reveal a football shirt. When we first see his beloved Oriana (Anne O'Byrne), she is wearing spectacles and her hair is up, like a librarian in a movie. He removes her spectacles, lets her hair down, as if miming the line, "My God! You're beautiful..." Such moments pass in an instant, but the cumulative effect allows laughter to intrude in the wrong places.

This was most damagingly true of Majella Cullagh's portrayal of the sorceress Melissa, who tries to win Amadigi's love through a series of hallucinatory transformations. It's difficult to emulate baroque stage magic when working on this scale, and the idea that Melissa's power lies in her skill with a paintbrush is an effective solution. In the process, though, she is herself transformed into a crude caricature of oversized unloveliness, a betrayal of an often quite majestic performance.

I should say that I was in a minority: the audience enjoyed the laughs as much as the musical performance, which is of a very high standard. Kenny's ringing counter-tenor, an OTC fixture, is here as thrilling as ever, if understandably frayed at the end of an evening's exertions. As Dardano, Amadigi's rival, Buddug Verona James displays a unique, bleached- white chest register that is hugely effective, while O'Byrne does justice to Oriana's sumptuous arias. Towering over all is Cullagh's enchantress, prey to emotions she can't control. Her suicide is supremely moving, her resurrection in this production a dramatic miscue. Nell Irish's single set has hidden rooms to suggest Melissa's domain, and Simon Corder's lighting produces appropriately garish effects: it is, in the end, a good show. I'm just not sure it's quite the right show.

n Further performances 8pm tonight, tomorrow. Booking: 0171-312 1996