Amadigi, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

Two Handel operas in one festival sounded like uncommon good luck, though both were in concert performance.

The very early Amadigi constantly surprised the ear, presenting earlier sketches of familiar numbers fromWater Music, Messiah, Solomon and other works. The plot, complicated and ridiculous, is just a vehicle for scrumptious arias, many bristling with coloratura.

The tempos of the conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini were spot on, but two familiar problems dogged the performance. First, you can't reproduce the sound of the castrato voice nowadays, and Sarah Connolly, in the title part, although sensitive and refined and with a warm low range, sounded spongy in the bravura passages. Second is the tendency to make Handel sound pompous and formal.

The other male role, Dardano, was sung by Anna Burford with strength and dignity, but her beautiful sarabande aria seemed unseductive. Seductiveness, however, was amply supplied - together with excitement, sexiness, humour and a sense of dance; all the things Handel fundamentally needs - by the soprano Catherine Naglestad as Melissa, who shamelessly upstaged everyone. The other soprano, Elizabeth Donovan, was endearing and childlike, and the Northern Sinfonia played with point and taste.

Compared to this, Porowas an unhappy experience. This had nothing to do with the illness and withdrawal of Ian Bostridge; he was replaced by the excellent Toby Spence in the tenor role of Alexander the Great, and the rest of the cast were equally good.

However, if the essence of Handel is wit, irony, physicality and emotional excess, then Poro never really got started. This Metastasio libretto has a typically soubrettish female, Erissena, and Christine Rice occasionally managed a smirk and a flash of the eyes. Otherwise, everything progressed with the utmost decorum and without a trace of charm.

The castrato problem was not really addressed at all. Jane Irwin, in the title role, is a fine mezzo, with copious nobility and gravity, but of course she could not imitate the great male singer who created this part. The other high male role of Gandarte, originally sung by a woman, was given to a countertenor, Robin Tyson, thus betraying Handel's sound-world twice over. Tim Mirfin, in the part of Timagene, is a true bass, but his style was comic.

Sarah Fox, in the prima donna role of Cleofide, shaped and coloured the phrases with intuitive eloquence, her tone luxuriously beautiful. But nobody was really happy. The conductor, Emmanuelle Haim, dished out lukewarm tempos and sometimes muffed the cadences. The poor Scottish Chamber Orchestra struggled manfully. The opera seemed interminable. It overran by half an hour; but by that time many of the audience had left.

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