Opera NEO Stages Handel’s Middle East War of Shock and Awe

When I come across an announcement for a new production of a Handel opera, that refrain from a distant potato chip ad floats through my brain. “Bet you can’t eat just one!” Once you start following Handel operas, you are hooked.

Daniel Moody with Juliana Zara above [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Daniel Moody with Juliana Zara above [photo (c) Gary Payne]

And since he wrote over 40 operas, it seams that ones I have not attended keep popping up, even though over the years, San Diego Opera has virtually ignored England’s greatest German composer.

Opera NEO, however, has happily focused on Handel. Last season’s Agrippina recast as a contemporary political drama proved compelling, and Rinaldo, another early Handel opera, completed this year’s season. While the young cast made an excellent case for Handel’s rich score, stage director Peter Kozma made a valiant attempt to make the stange plot twists of this “magic” opera appear dramatically convincing.

Although Handel and his convention bound librettist Giacomo Rossi titled their opera after the

Juliana Zara [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Juliana Zara [photo (c) Gary Payne]

courageous young Crusader knight who leads his army to defeat the Moors who control Jerusalem, the sorceress Armida clearly calls the shots as the opera’s central character. Defiantly sung by vocal and dramatic spitfire Juliana Zara, her Armida was more dominatrix than sorceress. Sporting black leather shorts and stiletto heeled boots, it was easy to mistake this imposing soprano’s magic wand for a riding crop. And she handled the composer’s vocal fioritura with the same command that bent the males in the cast to her iron will.

Countertenor Daniel Moody, who sang a key role in last summer’s Agrippina, gave a heroic vocal edge to Rinaldo that compensated for the plot twists that make the knight appear less than heroic. Unlike many countertenors, Moody’s voice grows stronger and brighter as it ascends. He may help create a new operatic vocal category: Helden Countertenor.

As Argante, commander of the Moors, bass Andrew Potter made his best impression in bold, declamatory arias, although the role’s more florid musical requirements escaped him. Given his stature and the prowess of his lower register, I predict a solid future for him in opera’s numerous Satanic roles.  Almirena, the young woman promised to marry Rinaldo when he defeats the Moors and liberates Jerusalem, is a sadly underwritten role, but Handel gave her one of his greatest arias “Lascia, ch’io pianga.” Sandstedt’s take on this aria was far too polite, and with her ample soprano, she could have imbued it with the anguish appropriate to Almirena’s hopeless dilemma.

Nathan Ward [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Nathan Ward [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Among the opera’s notable smaller roles, Nathan Ward not only sang the Christian Wizard’s big aria with aplomb, but he accomplished this feat in a number of strenuous yoga-like poses that clearly impressed his audience.

Kozma, who is also Opera NEO’s Artistic Director, brought in British early music specialist Nicholas Kraemer to conduct the Opera NEO orchestra, which successfully mixed period winds (trumpets, recorders and double reeds) and harpsichords with modern strings. As Kraemer demonstrated in a fine outing conducting the orchestra of the BachCollegium San Diego in February, his approach to early 18th century music balances vitality with linear clarity and precise phrasing.

Costume designer Danita Lee and Set Designer Josh Shaw chose mix and match as their guiding principle, with modern military fatigues and machine guns for Rinaldo’s crusader-soldiers, but Argante, clad in vaguely Moorish robes, wielded a scimitar. When the leaders from the opposing sides sat down for a diplomatic conference,  they smoked a hookah.

The battle between Christians and Moors [photo (c) Gary Payne]

The battle between Christians and Moors [photo (c) Gary Payne]

Most rewarding and amusing was the climactic battle scene carried out with laser swords on a darkened stage: the Christians with blue lasers vanquished the Muslims with red lasers. This victory allowed Rinaldo and Almirena to announce their nuptials and Armida and Argante to follow suit. According to most synopses in authoritative opera books, Armida and Argante are also supposed to convert to the Christian faith after the battle, but either Opera NEO omitted this plot twist or I missed a supertitle.

Kudos to Opera NEO for doing Baroque opera on a shoestring budget and doing it with imagination and credibility. As San Diego Opera varies its format under its new leadership, I hope they are also inspired to experiment, knowing there is hunger for opera in the city that is not restricted to viewing grand opera in a 3,000 seat hall.

[themify_box style=”shadow” ]This review was based on the performance of August 15, 2015, at the Palisades Amphitheater at Palisades Presbyterian Church, 6301 Birchwood, San Diego. This was the final performance of the Opera NEO Summer Festival and Workshop. www.operaneo.com[/themify_box]


Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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