When intendant Barrie Kosky gave the great, 83-year-old former Komische Oper chief Harry Kupfer carte blanche to chose a piece for his return to the house after 17 years, his immediate choice was Poro, re dell'Indie by George Frideric Handel which was premiered in London in 1731. Kupfer had worked as an assistant director on this rarely staged opera in Halle in 1956 and had cherished the wish to stage it himself ever since. That time has now come.

Ruzan Mantashyan (Mahamaya) and Eric Jurenas (Sir Alexander)
© Monika Rittershaus

The plot is based on Pietro Metastasio's interpretation of the encounter between Alexander the Great and King Porus in 326 BC. Susanne Felicitas Wolf has translated the Italian original to modern-day German, which sounds a bit cumbersome at times, but thankfully makes for clearer diction by the singers. Kupfer places the story in the times of the British Raj. Sir Alexander is the noble conqueror who occupies the two kingdoms of Poros and the beautiful Queen Mahamaya (Cleofide in the original libretto). Sir Alexander is the benign type, who forgives the intrigues in his own ranks as well as those of the conquered – in the mould of Mozart's Tito and Mitridate. It is also about King Poros’ jealousy and his love for Mahamaya. He does not understand that Mahamaya uses her charm only for political reasons with Sir Alexander while her heart still belongs to Poros. This scenario forms the basis of Kupfer's storyline, which, after trials and tribulations does have a happy ending – here accompanied with that deadliest of colonial gifts, weapons and alcohol.

Stage designer Hans Schavernoch, a longtime Kupfer companion, has recreated a jungle with large-scale solid elements as well as projections (together with video designer Thomas Reimer) full of aerial roots, which on the one hand suggest exotic locations and on the other a tangle of emotions. In the course of the evening, the botanical background becomes much tidier, even reminiscent of formal gardens. A slowly-rotating slightly raked platform in the form of a map of India with a large Buddha allowing action on several levels, which also point to psychological interpretations and positions of power. Particularly striking are the projection sails that extend into the auditorium and provide space for the oversize Union Jack that is lowered at the end of the opera – a not so subtle reference to Brexit?

Dominik Köninger (Poros) and Ruzan Mantashyan (Mahamaya)
© Monika Rittershaus

This artificial natural splendour is complemented with the costumes of Yan Tax, with fashionable colonial costumes for the British with neat khaki dress and helmets, folkloristic cotton suits for the Indian gentlemen and ornate sari creations for the ladies.

The work, conceived as an opera seria, is a sequence of secco recitatives and da capo arias. Only at the end of the first act and fourth last act does Handel let his characters find love and suffering in heart wrenching duets. As harpsichordist and conductor, Jörg Halubek leads the orchestra with great sensitivity, even though the range stays within a civilised mezzo-forte. The orchestra is supplemented by theorbo and Baroque guitar in the continuo contributing to the filigree character of the music, without dramatic or emotional outbursts.

Eric Jurenas (Sir Alexander) and Ruzan Mantashyan (Mahamaya)
© Monika Rittershaus

Komische's vocal sextet was well rounded and homogenous throughout on opening night. Above all, the sensitive and beautifully coloured soprano voice of Ruzan Mantashyan as Queen Mahamaya, which was particularly expressive in her lament in the third act, made us sit up and take notice of her for the future. Idunnu Münch portrayed Nimbavati, sister of Poros (Erissena), as a confident young woman who goes her own way and enjoys life – equipped with a multi-faceted, warm mezzo. In contrast to the original casting by Handel, Poros is not a castrato here but is portrayed by the baritone Dominik Köninger. While singing, he lets himself down from a liana in the first act showing us his complete involvement of body and voice. Poros has a tendency to act first and think later, which gets him into trouble – Köninger showed this character trait with empathic conviction. Countertenor Eric Jurenas played the role of the benign conqueror Sir Alexander with dignity and assured intonation. Noble bass Philipp Meierhöfer as the commander Gandharta, who is the most loyal of all loyal friends to Poros, gave expression to his devotion to Nimbavati with a warm timbred tone. Bass João Fernandes wove his intrigues at the side of Sir Alexander with a fitting, uptight and wooden demeanour.

At the end of the three-hour premiere performance, unanimous applause for the entire team, especially for Harry Kupfer, who has now fulfilled his dream. However, many in the audience audibly wondered why this piece fascinates him so much.