|Anna Christy as Morgana in Handel's Alcina (photo by Ken Howard)
We love our Handel operas with their melodies tumbling out "time-signature over final barline". To hear a perfectly cast group of singers and the perfect orchestra under one (semi-outdoor) roof is a matchless experience. Last night, Harry Bicket, renowned conductor of Early Music, led a spirited reading of Handel's Alcina, one marked by clarity and precision without any loss of emotional range.
Ariosto's 16th c. epic Orlando Furioso visited an 8th c. realm of sorcery and knighthood; it was the source material for many future theatrical works, including Handel's 1735 opera, one that achieved instant success in that epoch and which is given frequent productions in our era. We have reviewed Alcina at least three times in as many years. (All archived).
The story concerns the knight Ruggiero who has fallen under the spell of the beautiful and seductive sorceress Alcina who turns men into animals and rocks when she tires of them. His fiancee Bradamante who, in the Ariosto poem is always rescuing her fiance from some peril or other, has come to the magic island with Melisso, Ruggiero's former tutor, disguised as her brother Ricciardo. The pair must break Alcina's spell. Of course, they succeed. But not before a lot of deception, betrayal, and some gender bending fun, as Alcina's sister Morgana falls in lust with "Ricciardo".
The singers were uniformly superb and highly invested in their assigned characterizations. As the eponymous sorceress, soprano Elza van den Heever employed her powerful pipes to limn the wide-ranging emotions of the titular character. She is in turn loving, seductive, manipulative, vengeful, defeated, and vulnerable.
As her sister Morgana, Anna Christy fulfilled the demands of the high-lying tessitura with crystalline clarity and an undeniable facility with the coloratura passages. She imbued the character with plenty of humor in counterpoint with the serious mien of Alcina.
One could not have asked for a better Ruggiero than mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy who must sing accurately whilst wandering around the stage in a state of confusion and bewilderment. We enjoyed her performance so thoroughly that we are arranging to attend a solo recital next week presented by Performance Santa Fe. It is never taken for granted that a trouser role will be performed with such believability.
As his abandoned lover Bradamante, the marvelous mezzo Daniela Mack must be convincing in the gender bending role of Ricciardo, her very own brother, such that her revelation to Ruggiero as his beloved can delight the audience as well as astonishing Ruggiero. Her dramatic performance equalled the success of her vocal performance.
On her quest to liberate Ruggiero from the clutches of Alcina, she has assumed this disguise and is traveling accompanied by the tutor Melisso; the role was splendidly sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, whose powerful and resonant sound was blissfully interposed among that wealth of female voices.
Tenor Alek Shrader's lovely sound was similarly welcome as he brought to life the character of Oronte, Alcina's general. Oronte is the lover of Morgana and when Morgana falls for the disguised Bradamante, he gets cast off and only reunites with her at the end when she pleads for forgiveness.
It is said that there are no small roles, and soprano Jacquelyn Stucker's winning and convincing performance as Oberto, a young boy looking for his father on Alcina's enchanted island, won a huge and well-deserved round of applause from us and the rest of the house. We felt sad for her character who never found his father!
We were particularly overwhelmed by the music of Act II when there were fewer distracting high jinx onstage. Bradamante's aria was followed by one of Ruggiero's in response. The famous "Verdi prati" in which Ruggiero bids farewell to the enchanted island, always moves us to tears. Alcina's expression of despair over her loss of power was similarly affecting.
If melodies sound familiar, it is because Handel never thought twice about recycling arias from other operas. His inventiveness comes into play in his accurate characterizations and in his liberal and creative use of ornamentation in the ritornelli. As a matter of fact, one of director David Alden's touches that we most enjoyed was his having the singer deliver an aria with the A-B-A sections performed from three different vantage points.
His direction, from our point of view, was "too much of a muchness". Handel's operas seem to lend themselves to wild adaptations (see our prior reviews) and there seems to be a tendency to not trust the music to entertain a modern audience without an elaborate "concept". Perhaps the directors are right because the operas are long and the plots often confusing. We observed that the audience loved the onstage high jinx and laughed out loud.
Mr. Alden's concept was that of replacing the enchanted island with an abandoned theater and Ruggiero's enchantment that of someone escaping a mundane reality. We couldn't avoid thinking of Wagner's Tannhauser in which the eponymous knight is held captive by the goddess Venus in the Venusberg. Duty vs. desire is a common theme in opera.
But we haven't seen so much humping and jumping onstage in quite some time and found it distracting and excessive. The beasts (Alcina's ex-lovers) were portrayed by some truly excellent break-dancers (choreographed by Beate Vollack) whom we would have enjoyed at another time and place in which we could have given them our full attention. There was continual shtick that we found unnecessary and did not appreciate the moments that made no dramatic sense.
Updating an opera requires that the dramatic sense be maintained; it doesn't work for us if the story is "shoe-horned" into a concept. Taken moment by moment there were a number of valid images. For example, when Alcina loses her power, the symbolic fuschia gloves fall to the floor. But when dozens of them rain down from above it seemed to be overkill. And why was Morgana pushing a baby carriage? And were the rows of people sitting back to back and jiggling up and down supposed to be on a train? So many moments didn't make sense to us. We felt as if high vocal art was competing with low sight gags.
The setting (Gideon Davey) had something like a baroque proscenium on the left and a painting of a huge wave (like a Japanese woodcut) on the right. From time to time a wall with seven doors descended. People rushed in and out as frequently as in a French farce. Mr. Davey's costumes leaned toward contemporary streetwear with Morgana and Oronte dressed as theater ushers. At one point Morgana was dressed like Bette Midler.
Oh well, the music was great! Handel's music will live on and Mr. Alden's concept will vanish.
(c) meche kroop