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Japanese Handel courtesy of Nicholas McGegan

July 19, 2010 |  4:30 pm
AdmetoLike last summer, the irresistibly enthusiastic Nicholas McGegan will be leading a sunny all-Mozart program at the Hollywood Bowl this week. But there is a lot more to McGegan than his happy Hollywood Bowl concerts or even his more ambitious offerings in the Bay Area, where he has served as music director of Philharmonia Baroque for a quarter century.

Since 1991, McGegan has also headed the Handel Festival in Göttingen, Germany. There he performs Handel oratorios and stages the composer’s operas. Last year, he mounted “Admeto” in a startling Japanese-inspired production by the German film maker Doris Dörrie that has just been released on DVD. Dörrie, a Japan fancier, transfers a fanciful classical Greek drama to 18th-century Edo-period Japan. Actually, make that Po-Mo Edo, one in which the post-World War II Butoh dance meets Baroque opera. One in which Hercules is a sumo wrestler and Greek princes are samurais.

The cast is young, bright, handsome, versatile. The massive Japanese court costumes by Bernd Lepel are stunningly gorgeous. The lighting by Linus Fellbom is bold and ravishing (particularly on the Blu-ray version). The choreography by Butoh dancer Tadashi Endo and the performances by his Mamu Dance Theatre are an utter delight.

In other words, this new DVD of a rare Handel opera, despite some fussy video directing by Agnes Méth, is a major operatic event. Perhaps most startling is how dramatically probing and richly satisfying the production is compared with Dörrie’s often sentimental films.

Curiously, “Admeto” seems almost a riff on her 2008 feature, “Cherry Blossoms,” in which a provincial German widower travels to Tokyo to release the spirit of his wife with the help of Butoh, that strange admixture of ritual, mystic spirituality and fetishistic movement. In Handel’s opera, Admetus (countertenor Tim Mead), king of Thessaly, sends Hercules (baritone William Berger) to Hades to bring the shadow of his queen Alcestis (soprano Marie Arnet) back to the realm of the living. Meanwhile, the king has a fling with Antigone (soprano Kirsten Blaise), who happens to be a flirt in this opera.

There are many double-takes in Dörrie’s production, some meant to be intentionally humorous. The nearly naked dancers make a major contribution, be they spirits, the visualization of human emotions, the cutest sheep you’ve ever seen or a quartet of topless lovelies pawing over Hercules.

While all the singers are strong and true, Blaise -- a young American singer whom I remember as a luminous Woglinde in Robert Wilson’s production of Wagner’s “Ring” in Paris five years ago and also as the dancing girl in performances of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” – is a particular standout. Her seductive Antigone might have been a breakthrough, but unfortunately her website declares that she has “left the stage.”

Still, the unsung hero remains McGegan, who makes everything work musically and dramatically through vital conducting that feels as though it is controlling all the colors and movement on stage. Next season, McGegan has announced, will be his last in Göttingen. Fine. That means he’ll have more time for us. Anyone who can come up with this terrific Handel production and performance should be running – or at the very least closely associated with -- an American opera company or festival.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: DVD of "Admeto." Credit: Naxos.