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MUSIC REVIEW

Semi-staged Handel, with care

Martin Pearlman conducts soprano Ava Pine in Boston Baroque's performance of Handel's 'Amadigi di Gaula.' (Julian Bullitt) Martin Pearlman conducts soprano Ava Pine in Boston Baroque's performance of Handel's "Amadigi di Gaula."
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 17, 2009

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These are, of course, lean times for arts organizations and Boston Baroque made a pragmatic and sensible choice this year in picking Handel’s “Amadigi di Gaula’’ for its annual semi-staged Baroque opera production in Jordan Hall. The work’s modest proportions, only four vocal leads, helped to keep the price tag reasonable, and yet its status as a rarely spotted Handel opera also made its performance something of a novelty. Last night’s traversal may have been the work’s first airing in Boston.

Admittedly, it’s not impossible to see why this opera has not vaulted to the front ranks of the Handel revival. Its libretto, very freely adapted from the medieval “Amadis of Gaul,’’ is rather clunky and limited, focusing on the endlessly crisscrossing affections of its four characters. Amadigi and Oriana pine desperately for each other but the prince Dardano also has designs on Oriana, while Melissa, an evil sorceress, loves Amadigi. There is grief and elation and grief again, but in the end the right couple wins.

What makes any of this compelling is of course Handel’s score, which has delightful gems sprinkled nearly from the outset with Melissa’s “Ah! Spietato,’’ a stirring aria of regret in which the vocal line is beautifully interwoven with solo oboe (here a graceful Marc Schachman). Other arias are equally arresting, and there are several passages of strikingly imaginative orchestral writing.

Conductor Martin Pearlman and his ensemble did fine work, and Boston Baroque fielded a good ensemble cast for this production, directed by Paul Peers. Leah Wool was fluid and sensitive in the title role, Mary Wilson was a strong Oriana, countertenor Matthew White a solid Dardano, and Ava Pine was splendid as Melissa, singing with tonal richness and dramatic intensity in equal measure.

Unfortunately, the concert experience in Jordan Hall these days is needlessly impeded thanks to yet another New England Conservatory sign placed prominently at the back of the stage. The school can, of course, put its name anywhere it wishes, including at the entrance to this hall, but the stage itself should remain free of branding, out of respect for the art created there, for the integrity of the listening experience, and for the cultural treasure this hall represents to the entire city of Boston.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

HANDEL’S “AMADIGI DI GAULA’’ Boston Baroque; Martin Pearlman, conductor

At: Jordan Hall, last night (repeats tonight)

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