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Laid back: Pabyan and John Tessier in Imeneo.

A Nothing Doing
By Paul Rapp

Glimmerglass Opera, July 19

Two of director Christopher Alden’s more recent offerings at Glimmerglass, Sousa’s The Glassblowers and Offenbach’s Bluebeard, were both wickedly frenetic, often hysterical affairs, exploding with color, life, and humor. The Glimmerglass production of Handel’s Agrippina a few years ago was an eye-popping spectacular crammed with mind-blowing gender bending and pop-culture references.

So how does one explain Alden’s droll and lifeless production of Handel’s Imeneo?

Handel wrote Imeneo in the 1730s, and this production was set, according to the program notes, in the mid-1800s with a stage set inspired by the Mount, Edith Wharton’s Lenox “cottage.” Yawn. The spare stage consisted of the side of a clapboard house, with five windows opening onto a roof. Characters entered and exited through the windows, and activities inside of the house, consisting of lifeless, expressionless bodies sitting or moving slowly about, were often visible. The stage was largely without any color, and the costumes were all variants of black and brown.

There was an emotional void at the center of the opera. Apparently to create a stylized effect, the few characters tended to underact, stare incessantly into space, and only occasionally move, slowly, stiffly, and mechanically. While perhaps this was meant to underscore the internal conflict of the characters or to focus attention on the music, the overall effect was that of a slow-moving slideshow of uninteresting period photographs.

This could have worked had there been more heft to the opera itself, but the libretto was thin, and this was an aria-driven work. When the super-title translation screen goes blank for minutes at a time while somebody is singing (as happened throughout), you know that the singer is either endlessly repeating a phrase, or saying something so inconsequential as to defy the translator’s labor. Tick, tick, tick.

There were a few stabs at wacky humor, which seemed bizarrely out of place, and soprano Amanda Pabyan’s Rosmene’s sporadic flourishes of spunk in the second act seemed like bright wildflowers popping through grey concrete.

All in all, Imeneo seemed like an operatic version of the lethargic 1993 slacker film Bodies, Rest & Motion, except without the character-driven dialogue.

Sure the music was heavenly. This is, after all, freakin’ Handel! Michael Manciaci, a male soprano, was easily the star of the show. The novelty of the castrato voice (the program coyly referred to Manciaci as an intact male soprano) wore off quickly, leaving one to confront simply a singer of great dynamics, expression, and grandeur. Handel’s device of providing ensemble choruses was likewise very pleasing indeed. If only there had been something to look at as well.

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