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Classical 101

After a 272-Year Wait, Handel's Faramondo Appears

The Opera Department at The Ohio State University's School of Music presented the American stage premiere of Handel's Faramondo in the Southern theater over the past weekend, with three performances following several full dress rehearsals. Faramondo, with a libretto "after" Apostolo Zeno, tells a story of two kings, Faramondo, King of the Franks, and his enemy in love and politics, Gernando. Along the way there are tangled love interests and a baby switched at birth in a plot possibly Handel himself couldn't love. Faramondo had eight performances back in 1738, then disappeared until 1976. There was a recording conducted by Rudolf Palmer in the 1980s, and a recent production and recording from Switzerland, with Phillipe Jaroussky and Max Emmanuel Cenic, conducted by Diego Fasolis. That's it. Why the neglect? The convoluted plot can't be the only answer. Who can give a play-by-play description of Alcina or Rodelinda, musically ravishing as they may be? I suspect Handel himself had little time for Faramondo, that its failure to find an audience as Londoner's taste for Italian opera was waning further encouraged the composer into English language oratorio. Maybe Handel had argued with one castrato too many. Who knows? In truth  Faramondo lacks the hits of the aforementioned two operas, never mind the musical sophistication of Rinaldo - whose plot is recognizable from Torquato Tasso-or Giulio Cesare. But he's still Handel and there's enough in Faramondo ravish the ear. For example. The third act duet between Prince Adolfo, son of King Gustavo of the Cimbrians, and Clotilde, sister of Faramondo, King Gustavo's rival is a thing of serene beauty [youtube o5MKbRht9og 490 344] The fiery Princess Rosimonda graduates into a Tosca or Elettra. Here she reconciles with Faramondo The Ohio State production was by Peter Kozma, who also conducted. I'm not much of a fan of updating - Figaro in the Trump Tower complete with coke spoons seems retro now - but Kozma's decision to set Faramondo in the Chicago of Al Capone worked well. Revolvers replaced knives, and the Italian "re" and "padre" became "Boss" and "Godfather." Kozma, who conducted a bracing performance, made a long opera seem much shorter with his lively tempi and clear stage action. Chad Mahan's unit set, complete with a view of the Chicago El, kept the voices forward and suited the nimble cast. Kristine Kearney's costumes would have been at home on the Warner Brothers lot of Edward G. Robinson and Joan Crawford, down to Rosimonda's "FM" shoes. The decision was made to cast Faramondo as a tenor, and Jonathan Jurgens brought a warm voice and superb line to the title role. His Act 2 aria, Poi che pria di morire, was a musical highlight. The stand-out voices belonged to Keyona Willis en travesti as Adolfo (it's a bit of a waste, if I may say, to costume this radiant young woman as a man) and bass Calvin Griffin as Gustavo (the capo di tutti capi in this setting). Mr. Griffin sings with a maturity of tone and style that had me checking my program more than once to be sure it says he's an undergraduate! Countertenor William Sauerland was the strongest stage presence as the shark-like Gernando; his two arias were tossed off with a wonderful arrogance well suited to the character. There were no weak links among the singers, with strong contributions from Amedee Moore, Jamie Hartzell, Jacob Pence and Alexandra Hovland. But the one God-given world-class voice on the stage belonged to Mr. Griffin. We waited 272 years to see Faramondo in the States. I suspect there will be repeat productions before 2248, but I also suspect there will be far more of Rinaldo, Orlando, Serse, Agrippina, and Giulio Cesare - the operas in which Handel gave us gorgeous and often simple music, and emotions more moving to both composer and his audiences.