Because dramatic timing and the expression of emotions in baroque opera usually do not survive under the scorching light of Romanticism, most stagings of Handel operas adopt a certain cynically comical approach, in which the actions of characters tend to look silly and nonsensical. Hence it is most commendable of Christof Loy’s staging of Handel’s Alcina for the Bayerische Staatsoper that he has taken his characters seriously without eschewing the necessary sense of humour (after all, this is a long opera). It is also characteristic of Loy’s the thorough direction of actors and the elegant settings and costumes. This late aspect is particularly important – one is always bound to expect something a bit larger than life when one goes to the opera.
Fortunately, the director found a cast of engaged singing actors with extraordinary musical and dramatic talents. Anja Harteros certainly displays impressive features – a statuesque figure, majestic bearing, a fiery temper, an extra rich voice flexible enough for Handel’s technical demands and ductile enough to fine down her sizable lyric soprano to floating mezza voce. She succeeded in the test of keeping the interest in the repeats of her long arias and conveyed to perfection the falling from grace of her character, first shown in stylized crinoline dress and finally in camouflage war uniform. A beautiful and intense performance.
The part of Morgana is undeniably high for Verónica Cangemi’s voice. As a result, she could not sparkle enough in her opening aria and in Tornami a vagheggiar. But her sensitive phrasing and showstopping flute-like pianissimi ensured she had the audience on her side.
The Munich audience is famous for its fidelity to singers who regularly perform in their opera house – and that might explain the ovation reserved to Vesselina Kasarova. I hate to produce the dissenting note, but the habit of being treated to such ecstatic applause could be the reason why such a gifted singer indulges in going on singing with appalling problems in her technique. In order to compensate a clueless middle register, she has to resort to ugly adaptations involving a grotesque covering of vowels or a nasal vibratoless chanting. This battle of chest and head voice has two victims – proper Handelian style and pitch. Of course, she is an experienced singer whose ability with fioriture is praiseworthy, but one just need to pick any Ruggero in the discography, be it Berganza, Susan Graham, Della Jones or Alicia Coote, to realize her shortcomings. I cannot help thinking of what someone like Joyce DiDonato, Anna Bonitatibus or Ann Hallenberg would do in such a beautiful cast.
Italian contralto Sonia Prina is an asset to any cast in baroque opera – it is difficult to single out any particular aspect in such a faultless performance. She is also a most engaging and likeable artist on stage. Tenor Benjamin Hurlett, a newcomer to the production, has an ideal voice to this repertoire. His honeyed Un momento di contento compares to the very best. In a boy soprano role, Deborah York is perfectly cast and Sergio Foresti is a stylish Melisso.
I was very positively surprised by Cristopher Moulds’s conducting. He went for exciting and spontaneous tempi in the faster numbers, but knew when to relax and give singers time for expression in the most lyrical arias. His orchestra played with gusto and technical polish. I read that the broadcast from 2005 (conducted by Ivor Bolton, with different male singers) is going to be released by Farao Classics. My memory may deceive me, but tonight’s performance seems to me a complete improvement from the one recorded two years ago.