Posts Tagged ‘Handel’s Alcina’

After having seen Cecilia Bartoli sing Alcina in Zurich, I have said that this is her best Handelian role, and her performance tonight confirms that impression. Reading what I wrote back then, I realize that what she has done tonight is consistent with my memory. To be honest, she surpassed herself tonight – the coloratura in Ombre palide was more focused, she finally found her mojo in Mi restano le lagrime and her display of variety of phrasing in Ah, mio cor was impressive, even for someone who is not reaLly her fan. I mean, me. Although I admire the intelligence and ability behind all that, I just need to watch Arleen Augér in that video from Geneva to see that honest singing and emotional sincerity are better than craft and mannerisms. Sandrine Piau’s soprano is not as fresh as it used to be and fioriture in Tornami a vagheggiar lacked finish, but once she warmed up, she produced an exquisite Credete al mio dolore. Kristina Hammarström’s fast divisions are still something to marvel, but, other than that, her Bradamante now sounds lost around the passaggio. Philippe Jaroussky is now marginally more comfortable with the more heroic moments in the part of Ruggiero, but his countertenor is also marginally less soaring in the arie d’affetto. In any case, this is comparing him to himself. His Verdi prati remain a thing of beauty. I will never understand why the part of Oronte is never cast with a tenor graced by a beautiful voice. Christoph Strehl does have a long breath and his high g’s are firm, but that is pretty much it. Alastair Miles’s bass remains dark and powerful, and the Wiener Sängerknabe Sheen Park proved to be really brave with florid singing.

The Musiciens du Prince will never be the world’s richest toned orchestra, but their strings are far less scrawny than they used to be when I last saw them in this theater. This time, Gianluca Capuano too seemed a different conductor. He tried many different things in terms of phrasing (the contrasts in sound in Ah, mio cor were particularly innovative) and adopted some unusual ornamentation in the orchestra in some of the repeats. His continuo too was extraordinarily varied: there was a harp, a theorbo, a cello, a harpsichord and even an organ. All in all, his conducting was dramatically alert and the slow tempi in the arie d’affetto seemed to serve the purpose of highlighting his soloists’ expressive powers.

Damiano Michieletto’s exquisite looking production features some of this director’s hallmarks – rotating stage, retro décors, dreamlike sequences. Here Alcina’s island has something of the haunted hotel in The Shining. The stage is divided by a glass wall that mixes the reflex of what happens downstage with the action behind it upstage, the superpositions blurring fantasy and reality. The idea of having an older actress playing who Alcina is without her powers is a survival of Katie Mitchell’s staging from Aix-en-Provence, but Michieletto’s approach is ultimately cleaner and psychologically sharper, even if he does not try to wow you with his Régie insights.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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