Admeto, re di Tessaglia
Exit, pursued by a butoh sheep
This article is from 2009.
Opera is a medium well placed to embrace the ridiculous, and sometimes to render it sublime. Strained voices, high drama, grand sets, expensive costumes and expensive tickets: they all have their place, and it can be a fine line between spectacular and spec-tack.
Admeto, re di Tessaglia was the most performed of all Handel's operas during the composer's lifetime, but it has fallen out of fashion since then and isn't among his most highly regarded works. The storyline is roughly based on that of Euripides' Alcestis, but in an effort to include equal soprano parts for the two great 'rival queens' of the day, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, an extra female protagonist was incorporated into the libretto in the person of Antigone. The result is a complex storyline which at times threatens to burst into pantomime, and for some viewers the EIF's version will probably tip it over the edge.
The FestspielOrchester Göttingen, led by the ever sparkling Nicholas Mcgegan, plays with verve and spirit, and the singing is nice if not mindblowing. But while Handel just about manages to hold his own (and the orchestra really is very good), it's the artistic direction which really steals this show.
The most drastic directorial decision has been to resituate the entire opera in the world of the Japanese Samurai. Director Doris Dörrie gives a marvellously simple reason for the relocation: at the time when the production was being put together, her friend Tadashi Endo, a well-known Japanese Butoh Dancer, happened to be close at hand, so she thought she'd see what Handel and Butoh looked like in combination, liked the result, and ran with it.
Does it work? In one sense, the highly-stylized formality of eighteenth-century Japanese court culture lends itself extremely well to the excesses of eighteenth-century European opera, and there are some lovely, surprising pieces of set apparatus and choreography. It's glorious fun, and it's utterly absurd. A herd of butoh sheep run amok through the production (Antigone is reinvented by Handel's librettist as a shepherdess in disguise) and Alceste, who has gone to hell and back by the end of Act II Scene 1, is accompanied for the rest of the opera by a Japanese spirit-ghost (played by Endo). But it's unclear to this viewer at least why the backdrop changes to European rococo for a few scenes at the beginning of the third act, and after three hours of opera (it's a long show) Antigone's comic sheep sidekick starts to wear a little. If Endo's melancholy spirit-ghost is supposed to be taken in a spirit of seriousness then it's hard to see how or why given the bubbling fluffiness of so much of the production.
In sum, a slightly overlong, slightly indiscriminate, greatly entertaining romp, to be enjoyed rather than taken too seriously. Feels a little like a Carry On film at times. Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni once ended up having a fist-fight on stage. If only.
Edinburgh Festival Theatre, until 31 Aug, 7.15pm, £14-64.