St. Thomas Aquinas professed that one can sin by excess or by deficiency. The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s Alcina may have many virtues, but its sin is definitely excess. Katie Mitchell’s addresses precisely the key issue in what regards baroque “magic operas” – the notion that women have to charm a man. Alcina and Morgana are not ordinary women; they are sorceresses, i.e., they have special powers. However, they may transform people in animals and conjure lifelike visions, but – most inexplicably – they cannot find someone who loves them, like ordinary women do. In spite of all their qualities. The obvious answer is: man are blind to their natural qualities, so they have to make believe that they have the desirable requirements in order to attract them. Do you need to go to Ariosto to see that? No, when women cease to be young, aren’t they made to believe that they have to resort to every available trick (make-up, special diets, exercise routines, plastic surgery, implants, you name it…) to create the illusion of youth? So here we have two elderly women who have the power to look young and attractive in very special circumstances: in one room of their house, the bedroom, where they are ready to perform any sexual prowess to keep their “victims” under their spell.
The trick is done by a very ingenuous stage device – both doors to this bedroom are thick enough to hide a passage to the area behind the a scenic wall. Thus, when the actresses playing the old Alcina and Morgana step in the threshold, the singers cast as the young Alcina and Morgana quickly come through the hidden passage and appear on the other side, and vice-versa. To make it more interesting, the adjoining rooms are not glamorously decorated as the bedroom, but are workshop-like greyish places with industrial lighting where both sorceress work on stuffed animals (which stand for the men transformed by their spells). On the second floor, we can see the lab where the transformation is performed by a machine. Naturally, the set is too complex for changes. Therefore, all scenes have to take place in these rooms, for some awkward effects: characters discuss their plans to destroy Alcina’s magic realm while she is just in the next room. Too often characters have to look in only one direction not to see something obviously in front of them. Another side effect is: since this is a single set and this is a long opera, variety is provided by a group of extras playing Alcina’s servants – they enter, grab an object, put it somewhere, exit, come back, grab the same object, put it somewhere else and exit again etc etc. Most of the time, they just walk slow motion through the sceneries. Why? Actually, the great problem with the stage trick is: it is complex (and that is why it is so good) but its very complexity simply does not afford a second trick. For instance, since the singing Alcina is the young one, she sings, for instance, Mi restano le lagrime, alone and powerless, but looking like a million bucks.
At any rate, my problem are not the stage devices. Katie Mitchell makes an important question here, but does not bother to answer. Or to try to answer. Alcina is shown as a lonely and sorry seductress, but still a seductress, a woman who came to no good. As far as I know, everybody gets old. Not only sorceresses. Bradamante too will get old – and, considering her fiancé’s spiritual depth, she will use all the tricks on her sleeve to seem attractive, if she still wants have something to do with him. Actually, she is already doing this, isn’t she? She conjures a magic word, “a promise”, and a magic power , “morality” to charm a man not really willing to be with her. This is where I do not get why the production draws a line. All right, the director makes a point in showing that they are not going to be happy, but, really, everybody knew that from the beginning. All in all, the insight is powerful enough, the staging is clever enough, the sets and costumes are eye-catching and the Personenregie is faultless. I’ve had fun.
Patricia Petibon repeats in every interview that her voice is developing towards bigger things and she has a point. The catch is how big “big” is. Her soprano sounds indeed fuller, richer in its lower riches and capable of some expansion in her high notes. All that without any loss of firmness and brightness. In her present vocal condition, the role of Alcina is indeed within her powers, but the tessitura is low enough for a mezzo like Joyce DiDonato to sing it. This means, in many moments, it seats in the less congenial part of Ms. Petibon’s voice. You can still hear her, but the sound is not terribly expressive there. If a conductor like Marc Minkowski (i.e, a conductor who understand voices) were on duty, I am sure he would have guided his prima donna towards optimal results. The problem is Patricia Petibon is the kind of singer who likes to sin by excess – if her voice alone cannot do it, there is going to be some shouting, grotesque chest-resonance sounds, unwritten pauses, labored-breathing-effect, unstylish turns of phrase, the works… She won’t give up until she’ll have had it all out. Maybe it’s me, but I find it distracting. Even in a slimmer-toned shape, her Alcina would have met her goals by one very simple magic tool: trusting Handel’s inspiration. Karina Gauvin, not a force-of-nature even at her best, has done that in Beaune (2005?) and the results were moving. I found what I’ve heard today crafty.
Always at her best in baroque repertoire, Anna Prohaska had some beautiful moments as Morgana. She handles the Italian text admirably and could produce some pure-toned, exquisite phrases, especially in Credete al mio dolore. At other moments, she could be clumsy, miscalculating her breath support and either forcing her high notes or lacking steam for long high-lying passages. Tornami a vagheggiar was more mechanical than charming. Katarina Bradic, usually cast in minor roles at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, proved to have very long breath and very clear divisions, even in the really fast tempi for her arie di bravura. She sounds opaque around the passaggio and that jars with some cavernous low notes that do not always go with the affetto portrayed by Handel.
I am not convinced that the role of Ruggiero truly works for a countertenor. In terms of loveliness of tone, legato and fluent coloratura, Philippe Jaroussky is above his competition. He was the only member of the cast who could get away with overornamentation, offering a haunting Mi lusinga il dolce affetto and a touching Verdi prati, but was only partially audible in Stà nell’Ircana or Di te mi rido. He also pushed some high notes in a way that sounded dangerous to my ears. The part of Oronte remains to be properly cast – and this evening did not change that. Krzystof Baczyk (Melisso) has a very resonant and forceful voice, but his approach is too buffo for Pensa a chi geme. The boy soprano from the Tölzer Knabenchor did a commendable job as Oberto. Understandably, he was exempted from his third aria, which is dramatically pointless anyway.
Andrea Marcon presided over a rich-toned Freiburger Barockorchester, fully engaged and tonally varied. The conductor generally preferred fast tempi, giving practically no leeway for expression in the coloratura in some florid arias. He indulged the excess of ornamentation from his soloists and had a fondness for pauses and emphases that made Handel’s music less powerful in its expression. But that was rather the exception than the rule. The orchestral sound was clean and forceful, the continuo creatively and stylishly conceived and he and his singers seemed to be in complete understanding. The edition had very few excisions (including some in the opening sinfonia and the ballet) and the numbers shorn of their repeats were rewritten to end in the tonic key by means of a short orchestral comment or even by the repetition of a few verses.