If there is a director who knows a thing or two about Alcina, this is Christof Loy. He has staged it three times in his career – and this is the second time I see him stage this favorite among Handel’s operas (at least, it is my favorite…). The first time, in Munich, I have praised the fact that he resisted the temptation of abusing comedy touches to get away with a long opera full of arie da capo. Then, he – and his prima donna Anja Harteros – was able to make the last act the dramatic culmination of the opera: Alcina had fought even when she had no more weapons to fight with and lost it in the end: even the gods were deaf to her prayers.
His 2014 production for the Opernhaus Zürich starts with a powerful concept – Alcina’s magic powers are the magic of theatre. On stage, she can be and do everything and Ruggiero is under the spell of the diva. I was anticipating the last act – the run of performances is over, but Alcina the actress cannot let the character go and is unable to see reality from fantasy in her relationship to her leading man, whose hometown sweetheart comes to rescue him in the last moment from a star system that make people into beasts. But no, Loy has decided to make the opposite of what he did at the Bayerische Staatsoper: act III degenerates in buffoonry, Ruggero has a boyband choreography for his aria di bravura, Bradamante stripteases before a very much willing Melisso and Alcina embraces telenovela with a pistol gun and high heels. When she says that heaven had turned against her, it is just tantrum – she does get yet another second chance. While I cannot blame the director for disappointing my own private expectations, I did feel shortchanged to see the theatrical climax of the opera staged as undramatically as it has been (add to it an audience that behaved as if following laughing cues*). In any case, the first two acts were more than worth the detour in their keen Personenregie, exquisite sets and costumes not to mention brilliant solutions for the challenging reprises of the A section in da capo arias.
At first, I had the impression that conductor Giovanni Antonini too was not interested in expression and drama. The orchestra phrased drily in the sinfonia and seemed a bit unwillling to move forward with abandon. Later in act II, in which all singers were at their most congenial, the maestro was able to provide some richness of sound and flexibility of tempo to illustrate the changes of mood in the text. As a matter of fact, Antonini would offer many natural and effective ideas to boost contrast in the B section of arias. It is also praiseworthy that he would not press the “fast and faster” button for his choice of tempi. As a result, Bradamante could produce clean fioriture in her arie di furia, and Oronte was able to find the right pathos in Un momento di contento. In any case, the example of exhilarating tempo in Stà nell’Ircana also proved his was a safe choice, given the messy results there (I am not speaking of wayward valveless French hornes, as this seems to be the rule with historically informed orchestras in opera houses).
My eight or nine readers probably know by now that I am not truly a fan of Cecilia Bartoli, but in the title role and in the modestly sized auditorium of the Opernhaus Zürich, she left little to be desired. Although her voice still rattles uncomfortably and projects poorly in outspoken moments, the part focuses rather in expression of softer affetti and in tonal coloring, something she does as poignantly as Billlie Holiday used to in her jazz balads. Both Sì, son quella and Ah, mio cor were tackled with emotional generosity and dramatic imagination. If Ma quando tornerai proved to be a tour de force in the unusual rhythmic accuracy in the difficult coloratura, Ombre pallide was a bit all over the place. Curiously, Ms. Bartoli lacked concentration in Mi restano le lagrime, an aria that can otherwise prove to be very intense, as one could hear in the Munich staging with Anja Harteros.
Her Morgana, Julie Fuchs, is more of a lyric soprano than the leggiero one usually finds in this role. Although she dealt with the fioriture and high notes commendably, she would often sound in her element dealing with long legato phrasing and floating mezza voce. Maybe one day she will be singing the other soprano role in this opera. Varduhi Abrahamyan is rather a mezzo than a contralto and, although she manages the passaggio adeptly, one can hear that her voice truly blossoms from the middle register up. That said, she managed Bradamante’s difficult fioriture famously and also in warm and full tone. To make things better, she is a charismatic actress, an asset in a staging in which the character is made to be more ambiguous than it usually is (particularly in its response to Morgana’s seduction).
As much as in Aix-en Provence, Phillippe Jaroussky found Ruggiero’s arie di bravura on the low side and the heroic expression difficult to put across, but his singing of the act II arias was so exquisite and sensitive that one could forgive him anything. I doubt that there might be someone who sings Mi lusinga il dolce affetto as beautifuly as he does. I hope one day I will understand why the part of Oronte is never cast with a bright- and firm-toned tenor with some flesh in his high register, but at least Fabio Trümpy has long breath and easy mezza voce. He was spared È un folle, è un vile affetto (the role of Oberto and the ballet music too were cut this evening). Finally, Krzysztof Baczyk showed undeniable improvement in his rendition of Melisso’s aria since his performances in Aix.
* I know: today is New Year’s Eve and one would rather have a laugh than develop a depression over poor Alcina’s downfall…