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New York
Campos Community Garden
05/26/2023 -  & May 27*, June 2, 3, 2023
George Frederick Handel: Rosmene’s Choice (distilled from Imeneo, HWV 41)
Hans Tashjian (Imeneo), Elyse Kakacek (Rosmene), Jeffrey Mandelbaum (Tirinto), Brian Mummert (Argentio), Maria Brea (Clomiri)
Carmen Lavada Johnson-Pajaro, Ravenna Lipchik (Violins), Kyle Miller (Viola), Adrienne Hyde (Cello), Rebecca Pechefsky (Harpsichord), Jeffrey Mandelbaum (Artistic Director)
Rod Gomez (Co-director/Project Manager)

J. Mandelbaum, E. Kakacek, H. Tashjian (© Paul H. Moon Photography)

Handel understands effect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Handel? Bluff, sagacious, immensely persevering, but constantly human, alike in his virtues and his dealings, he was a real man dealing with a real world.
Paul Henry Lang

George Frederick Handel almost described the opening of his penultimate opera, letter‑perfect. His setting for Imeneo was “a pleasant Athenian garden.” The site for this newest production of Opera Essentia was indeed “a pleasant garden”, but here the arbor, flowers, trees and curious pigeons was in the unlikely setting of New York’s East Village.

Unlikely yes, but the garden was packed last night and the night before. And while the opera was truncated, the original orchestra transformed into harpsichord and four strings, and the title changed, Imeneo was turned into a light and frivolous story. Close enough, in fact, to Handel’s own designation, “operetta.”

The truncations were of all the recitatives and the final chorus. This, though, didn’t detract from a story for which the late Ms. Turner might have asked: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Specifically, Tirinto (Jeffrey Mandelbaum) is in love with the eponymous Rosmene (Elyse Kakacek), who’s been captured by pirates. An opening aria where Tirinto bewails his loss and, Voilà! (or in Handel’s second language, Ecco), she turns up, rescued by Imeneo (Hans Tashjian). Poor Rosmene! Now she is wooed by them both. The muscular savior woos her with a flower, her original lover woos her with songs and tears. Her confidant, also enamored of Tirinto, and Brian Mummer as her father complicate the easy story.

Finally, like Paul Henreid and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, both suitors were so commendable that Ingrid Bergman (or Rosmene) don’t know until the last moment (or the last aria) whether to choose love or duty.

Not a great story. And Handel’s arias–almost invariably A‑B‑A form–are hardly his best music. The story is neither comedy nor tragedy, but a divertimento. Still director Jeffrey Mandelbaum eschewed the obviously irreverent. He presented, in fact, a 70‑minute divertimento in an appropriately bucolic setting.

Both chamber orchestra and action were inside the Campos Garden flower‑covered pergola, yet Mr. Mandelbaum employed the aisles of the audience and the front of the stage for various solos, duos and trios. So close was the audience that the dramatic facial movements–especially the frustrated Rosmene–gave another view.

But the real honest joy here came with the voices. For such a lightweight show, the five actors had voices which could enhance any serious operas. My personal favorite was the soprano with the smallest part. Yet Maria Brea the least interesting role of Clomiri, and with a dark strong soprano made it vocally thrilling.

The star‑crossed threesome each had their moments. Ms. Kakacek has a truly beautiful soprano, some of which soared easily to the top. And while nobody believed her “mad scene”, it blended in with the rest of the fable. Mr. Tashjian offered a deep‑throated baritone. And Jeffrey Mandelbaum, the director of the opera, showed an effortless counter‑tenor–as well as the sympathetic woebegone countenance of the lover betrayed.

In fact, during the final quartet (Handel’s choral finale was eliminated), Rosmene’s Choice, with lovely violin playing by Carmen Lavada Johnson-Pajaro, could have come from a Bach Passion.

Having done my homework, the story was familiar. Still, could I suggest that before the opera, a brief synopsis might be given, so the audience could concentrate on the voices and aria rather than attempting to link characters with arias? The climactic choice could be left as a titillating question mark.

For a titillating and delightful production balancing on the cusp of trifle and pastorale.

CODA: This was hardly a one‑off production. Opera Essentia, has a “mission” is to bring Handelian opera to al fresco surroundings, and into communities which rarely experience this most improbable art. Opera Essentia’s next Bronx performances will be in Crotona Park Amphitheatre, 959 Claremont Park Way, on June 2. The Brooklyn show will be at Herbert Von King Park Amphitheatre, 670 Lafayette Avenue. Both operas start at 6pm, ending around 7.15pm.

Harry Rolnick



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