Youthful Exuberance: Handel's 'Almira'

almira-250In early 18th-century Hamburg composer Reinhard Keiser was ruler of the operatic roost. But he did get one brief challenge, from a young visitor who went on to overshadow just about every other opera composer of the era.

Keiser lived from 1684 to 1739, a life span roughly parallel to J.S. Bach's. But while Bach wrote no operas whatsoever, Keiser wrote more than five dozen of them. Along the way he became the dominant composer of German Baroque opera, working almost exclusively in Hamburg.

But Keiser, it seemed, had a debt problem, which in the words of one observer, "forced him to abscond" for a time, beginning in 1704. And at about that same time a musician named George Frideric Handel came to town.

Handel, of course, wasn't yet the beloved composer of "Water Music," the "Hallelujah Chorus," and a whole catalogue of great operas. In fact, he was just 19 years old. But his time in Hamburg did present him with an unexpected opportunity. Due either to Keiser's indulgence, or to his absence, Handel was offered the chance to set one of Keiser's old librettos -- and he took full advantage. The result was Handel's very first opera. It's a sprawling yet exhilarating work called Almira.

Hamburg, during Handel's brief stay there, was a cosmopolitan musical environment. So it's not surprising that the music on display in Almira reflects a number of different traditions. And that variety -- including the use of French-style overtures, orchestral color in the German tradition, and Italianate vocal writing -- remained a hallmark of Handel's operatic style throughout his career.

It's also notable -- and unusual -- that in the Hamburg of the early 1700s it wasn't even necessary for an opera's libretto to be in a single language. The Almira libretto, for example, was written in German, but based on an older libretto from Italy. So the opera itself is in two languages, with all the recitatives and some of the 50-plus arias in German, and the remaining arias in Italian.

To be sure, Almira isn't the sort of mature, highly-polished, yet seemingly effortless score that Handel turned out by the dozen later in his career. Yet it contains a string of distinct and engaging musical numbers -- many using themes and melodies good enough for Handel himself to recycle them later on.

On World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents a sparkling production of Handel's Almira from the Boston Early Music Festival. The opera features a pair of striking soprano roles. In the Boston production they're heard in top-notch performances by sopranos Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira and Amanda Forsythe as Edilia, with the festival's orchestra directed by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs.