|Jamie Van Eyck and Katharina Hagopian|
Artistic values triumphed last weekend when R.B. Schlather directed a unique presentation of Handel's Alcina--and without sacrificing musical values, thanks to a strong cast of singers and an octet of fine musicians under the direction of Geoffrey McDonald who conducted with admirable verve.
The atmosphere was casual with musicians and conductor clad in grey t-shirts and a mostly young audience crammed into a black box space painted white. The stage at the far end was raised high enough for everyone to have a good view and the singers entered from below. Scenography by Paul Tate DePoo comprised only a short staircase and the head of a fierce wild boar mounted on a side wall, representative of one of Alcina's lovers whom she had transformed. JAX Messenger's lighting was atmospheric.
Costumes by Terese Wadden were vivid, colorful and whimsical. The sorceress Alcina (Katharina Hagopian) appeared in slinky black with a huge black hat, then in snakeskin and later in a flowing blue caftan and an eerie white wig (hair and makeup by Dave Bova). Her sister Morgana (Anne-Carolyn Bird) was dressed like a Disney princess with a tiny crown and red sequined shoes.
The knight Ruggiero (Jamie van Eyck in travesti) wandered around in a red kimono, dazed and confused by Alcina's magic spell. His lover Bradamante (Eve Gigliotti) comes to Alcina's magic island disguised as her own brother, complete with funny moustache and an eye patch. She is accompanied by the knight's old tutor Melisso (David Adam Moore) intent on rescuing Ruggiero.
Oronte (Samuel Levine) is Morgana's lover but in true observation of Baroque gender confusion, Morgana drops him in favor of Bradamante, now called Ricciardo. Got all that? It's just one small part of a long and fantastical epic poem called Orlando Furioso written in the 16th c. by Ludovico Ariosto. The segment Handel used in 1735 involves a lot of attractions, deceits, betrayals, rejections, reconciliations, revenge, and gender confusion.
Mr. Schlather made the story interesting by directing his singers to be highly physical with the physicality accompanying the heightened emotions of the text. The young singers handled this well in every case while still managing Handel's elaborate embellishments with aplomb. The voices were excellent and the parts well cast. The artists worked well as an ensemble.
Some touches we loved were Morgana's LED-lit magic wand and the way she wielded it, and the magic fruit substituted for the magic ring, a device meant to counteract Alcina's magic spell and to restore Ruggiero to sanity. There were as well some directorial touches that we failed to fathom. We didn't grasp why Bradamante appears to Ruggiero in clothes that Alcina had worn, unless we were meant to see her through Ruggiero's mistrustful eyes. And Melisso at one point appears in one of Alcina's costume with a white mask through which he seems to be inhaling a drug that makes him "stupid".
The small orchestra comprised a string quartet augmented by a bass, a harpsichord and a pair of oboes. We found no fault with the music and particularly loved what is arguably the best known of the arias "Verdi Prati", beautifully sung by Ms. Van Eyck.
Titles by Steven Jude Tietjen were barely legible during Act I but with the dimmer lighting of Act II were fine.
Although we can get pretty testy when a director tampers with The Ring Cycle or La Traviata, in the case of a rarely produced opera with such a nonsensical plot, we welcome originality and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
(c) meche kroop