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15.7.08

Wolf Trap's Island of Twisted Delights

(L to R) Steven Sanders (Oronte), Maria Markina (Bradamante), and Ava Pine (Morgana) in Alcina, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo courtesy of Carol Pratt)
(L to R) Steven Sanders (Oronte), Maria Markina (Bradamante), and Ava Pine (Morgana) in Alcina, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo courtesy of Carol Pratt)
Wolf Trap Opera is in the midst of a season that, it should be said, is a wild success. After appropriately performing a concert version of Candide in the Filene Center, the company has focused on three unusual choices in the more suitable Barns, beginning with Verdi's early comedy Un Giorno di Regno, continuing this month with Handel's Alcina, and next month with Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. All performances have sold well or sold out completely, so move quickly to get tickets if you can. Baroque opera has become so important in major theaters around Europe, with the United States slowly catching up, that Wolf Trap Opera does its emerging singers a great service by programming 18th-century works, as it has done with Telemann's Orpheus in 2006 and Alcina this summer. This production, seen on Sunday afternoon, combined generally good singing, a pick-up ensemble of Baroque specialists, and a pretty, slightly odd staging.

Alcina (HWV 34) was one of Handel's later operatic successes, premiered in 1735 at Covent Garden. The libretto (.PDF file) is Antonio Marchi's reworking of older libretti, based ostensibly on a famous episode from Ariosto's Orlando furioso. Beyond the character names and the rescue of Ruggiero from Alcina's island, however, the resemblance stops. Although the work basically died with its composer, not to be revived until the 20th century, it has proven to be one of Handel's greatest scores and is now staged with remarkable frequency. The magical nature of the source story lends itself to fabulous and hallucinatory productions, like the psychedelic hippie staging by Opera Vivente last fall. Eric Einhorn's colorful production went in a similar direction, with brightly colored costumes (Mattie Ulrich) and lights (Robert H. Grimes) and a set dominated by the image of a huge crashing wave (set by Erhard Rom).

In the opening scenes, the concept seemed to be that Alcina was the buxom madame of a zany 18th-century whorehouse, in the silhouettes of beckoning bewigged lovers and the wild hair and red shoes of the tarted-up Morgana. It was an idea that had merit, although the outré sex romp quickly devolved into something disappointingly moralistic somewhere around the end of Act II. To symbolize Alcina's power being broken, her colorful clothing was stripped away, leaving the brave soprano Rebekah Camm in a dirty nightgown and bald cap with stringy hair. Love alone brings fruitfulness, and Alcina's abuse of love turns her former suitors into a zombie chorus of bewigged servants, drained of all color -- rather than animals and other natural things.

(L to R) Rebekah Camm (Alcina) and Elizabeth DeShong (Ruggiero) in Alcina, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo courtesy of Carol Pratt)
(L to R) Rebekah Camm (Alcina) and Elizabeth DeShong (Ruggiero) in Alcina, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo courtesy of Carol Pratt)
The music of this opera (online score) runs from very good to exquisite (see this series of videos of much of the music). To keep the opera's run length down to three hours, the Wolf Trap version cut all of the dances, two of Ruggiero's arias ("Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" and "Mio bel tesoro"), one of Bradamante's ("Vorrei vendicarmi"), one of Oberto's ("Chi m'insegna il caro padre?"), and a few B sections and recitatives. The best performance came from soprano Ava Pine as a loopy, sluttish Morgana, both because of her extraordinary accuracy and intonation in arias like "Tornami a vagheggiar" at the end of Act I (here given to Morgana, although confusing indications in the sources have led many directors to give it to Alcina instead). After the nearly faultlessly placed staccato technique of that aria, Pine gave a show-stopping rendition of "Credete al mio dolore" in Act III, complete with a shimmering pianissimo high note in the cadenza. She also seemed the most natural actress on the stage, creating an unforgettable character.

Equally impressive vocally was mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero, the only castrato role in this opera. The ambitus sits fairly low, as it was created for Giovanni Carestini, or Cusanino, whom 18th-century historian Charles Burney, in his General History of Music, said had "the fullest, finest, and deepest counter-tenor that has perhaps ever been heard." DeShong's voice had a burnished, positively masculine set of bottom notes, and her agility in florid passages was the best in the cast. Ruggiero, of course, gets to sing the lovely slow aria "Verdi prati," a model perhaps for Serse's much more famous "Ombra mai fu," and DeShong sang it guilelessly, with a chocolatey tone. It is a strange moment, as Ruggiero seems to regret having to leave Alcina's island and its pleasures. Burney wrote that the castrato Carestini initially refused to sing "Verdi prati" because it was "unfit" for his voice. Handel went to the singer's house and berated Carestini, in heavily Teutonic English recreated in Burney's account, until he relented. The piece was a favorite of audiences, of course, and regularly encored.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Handel With Care: A Revealing 'Alcina' at the Wolf Trap Barns (Washington Post, July 14)
For all of her bravery on stage, in terms of costuming and acting, soprano Rebekah Camm did not convince vocally. The voice is suave and powerful, but without enough interest in tonal differentiation or smoothness of line to sustain the role's slow aria, "Son quella." In fast passages, she seemed insecure, rushing through her runs when the orchestra dropped out in her mad scene at the end of Act II, for example. Likewise, her "Ah! mio cor" seemed pale and compressed compared to a rendition like Magdalena Kožená's. Maria Markina had good moments as Bradamante but seemed underpowered in her low range, Steven Sanders (Oronte) had a slightly shallow tone, troubled by a fluttery vibrato, and Liam Moran brought a woolly but resonant quality to Melisso. Leena Chopra's major achievement was not vocal but her convincing acting as the boy Oberto, all the more remarkable for having also played the sexy maid Paquette in Candide the previous week. Handel wrote the role of Oberto for the boy treble William Savage (Handel sometimes indicated his part simply as "the boy"), who later sang the countertenor role of Jonathan in Handel's Saul. The libretto works in the role as the son of Astolfo, the knight who is Alcina's lover before Ruggiero arrives in Ariosto's epic.

The orchestra of Baroque specialists was generally good, playing from the Bärenreiter Händel edition with the pitch set at A415. Intonation problems were not overwhelming but persistent, especially between the cellos and the double bass, a common issue. The continuo group, seated to the left of the orchestra in the house, had its own intonation disagreements and were occasionally misaligned with the pit in terms of ensemble, although conductor Eric Melear did a good job of keeping his forces together. The most exciting part of this production, musically speaking, was the florid embellishment of most of the da capo repeats. These ornaments and cadenzas were not credited to anyone, but one assumes that the singers were assisted in creating them by the principal coach, Jeremy Frank, who capably manned the harpsichord all evening. This is the best way to solve the "da capo problem" of Baroque opera: taking all of those repeats will not bore, either musically or dramatically, if they are embellished as a Baroque singer would have done. This performance demonstrated this point admirably.

One performance of Alcina remains at the Barns, this evening (July 15, 8 pm), already sold out. Beg, borrow, or steal to find a seat.

If you are looking for a recording of this opera, the recent one by Les Arts Florissants, with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Natalie Dessay is excellent, but readers are reminded that a new Alcina is soon to be released by Il Complesso Barocco, with Alan Curtis conducting and Joyce DiDonato in the title role.

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