Haymarket Opera opens fifth season with magical Handel

Sat Nov 07, 2015 at 3:58 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

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Erica Schuller and Jose Lemos in Haymarket Opera’s production of Handel’s “Amadigi di Gaula.”

One could say that Haymarket Opera Company, Chicago’s resident Baroque opera troupe, is on a roll.

But that implies a change, an uptick from something more mundane. Actually, Haymarket Opera has been on a roll ever since its debut in September 2011 at the intimate Mayne Stage on the Far North Side. With that expressively sung, elegantly designed production of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, Chicago cellist Craig Trompeter, violinist Jeri-Lou Zike and their colleagues announced that they were ready to fill a gap on Chicago’s musical scene.

Since then Haymarket Opera has provided local music lovers with four exceptional seasons of historically informed Baroque opera staged in the kind of small-scale theater for which it was intended centuries ago.

Opening its fifth anniversary season Friday night at Mayne Stage with one of Handel’s early operas, Amadigi di Gaula, written in 1715, Haymarket offered its familiar blend of impeccable singing and imaginative staging.

The conventions of Baroque opera—ornately embellished arias, fantastical tales of sorceresses and impossibly chivalrous lovers, stylized gestures that carry messages about class and gender—are worlds away from 21st century life. But Sarah Edgar, stage director and choreographer of Amadigi, and her gifted cast made us believe thoroughly in Handel’s tale of two beleaguered lovers, a rejected suitor and a furious sorceress attended by a trio of diabolical minions.

Bringing a richly rounded, dark-hued countertenor to the title role, Jose Lemos was a dynamic hero, whether wooing the princess Oriana (soprano Erica Schuller) with long-lined, lilting serenades or furiously fending off the unwanted advances of the sorceress Melissa (mezzo soprano Suzanne Lommler). Even in his static poses and stately moves, he was a flesh-and-blood character. Convinced of Oriana’s unfaithfulness, he unfurled single, luminous notes, conveying a depth of pain that touched our hearts. But he sailed through Handel’s fiendish decorated vocal lines with astonishing ease.

Schuller glowed as the beautiful, chaste Oriana, her warm, agile soprano full of passion and depth. However, when stung by Amadigi’s unwarranted jealousy, she unleashed vocal volleys that ripped the air like speeding arrows.

Lommler was a deliciously malevolent Melissa, madly in love with Amadigi and determined to ruin his courtship of Oriana. Deploying her exceptionally pliant, crisp mezzo-soprano voice, she romped through Handel’s twisting, leaping arias like a proud lioness.

As Dardano, the Prince of Thrace and Amadigi’s rival for Oriana’s hand, Alexander Edgemon offered an intriguing vocal contrast to Lemos’s Amadigi. Edgemon’s lighter, more transparent voice perfectly suited a man both spurned in love and defeated in battle.

As ever with Haymarket productions, the small orchestra, directed by Trompeter who also played cello, provided zesty, full-throttle accompaniment. Mayne Stage’s cozy, cabaret-style space amplified the orchestra’s sound, allowing us to savor every last nuance, from Kathryn Montoya’s plaintive solo oboe to the strings’ astringent fury in the opera’s stormy scenes.

It is the staging, however, that puts the final gloss on Haymarket Opera’s productions. Meriem Bahri’s sumptuous costumes, especially the contrast between Oriana’s soft red gown and Melissa’s stiff, ornate, dark brocade, conveyed us to the 18th century. Zuleyka V. Benitez’s flat painted sets, including the frankly phony cardboard flames that popped up from the stage floor at Melissa’s command, were cheerfully unrealistic. But, with Handel’s dramatic music in our ears, we wholeheartedly believed the magical realm they suggested.

With luck, we will have many more years to savor Haymarket Opera’s magic.

Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula runs through 7:30 p.m. Monday. Haymarketopera.org.

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