Santa Fe Opera 1: Dreams and Illusions
Handel rarely had trouble finding good material for new operas, but the scenarios borrowed from Orlando Furioso seem to have inspired some of his greatest music. In Alcina, the third of his operas based on episodes from Ariosto’s epic, Handel used the libretto from an extant Italian opera as his point of departure for nearly three hours of memorable melody, brisk recitative, and more than a few ostentatious displays of vocal brilliance. Under the direction of Harry Bicket, Alcina – one of the five works presented at this summer’s Santa Fe Opera – was given a performance of tremendous vitality, and the dazzling arias were brought to life by a consistently strong group of soloists. The staging of David Alden, however, proved altogether more frustrating.
Mr Alden’s production – which first appeared in Bordeaux and Madrid, but was revised for the Santa Fe stage – contained too many fascinating ideas and high-conceptual flourishes to be written off as thoughtless or merely lazy. The story, as it appears in the opera, concerns the knight Ruggiero who, under the influence of a magic spell, has fallen in love with the sorceress Alcina and forgotten about his betrothal to Bradamante, who arrives on Alcina’s island determined to rescue her beloved. In Mr Alden’s concept – he claims, in the programme note, to have been inspired by Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo – the island of Alcina is reimagined as an ornate old cinema where Ruggiero goes to escape the drudgery of his suburban life and a presumably-boring marriage to Bradamante (it’s hard to imagine how being married to the greatest warrior-maiden in all of Christendom would be boring, but there you go).
The problem is, it didn’t quite work: the concept was a rough fit with the story from the beginning, and further attempts to make it cohere led, at best, to a kind of narrative confusion. Mr Alden was scrupulous in infusing each scene with its own ideas, mood and visual character; but the ingenuity of the individual moments never quite worked together to achieve dramatic unity. The idea that Alcina can be played as a low-brow comedy – that there is more room in the libretto for innuendo than the designation of opera seria might suggest – is not wholly indefensible. Yet in trying so hard to play scenes for obvious, crowd-pleasing laughs Mr Alden ended up with something closer to sketch comedy, over-seasoned with a song-and-dance slapstick that seemed largely out of tune with the words, the music, and the fundamental tragedy of the story.
Elza van den Heever (Alcina) in Haendel's Alcina. Harry Bicket, conductor. David Alden, director. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2017 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
The first act was overly fussy and occasionally chaotic, but it was also entertaining enough to build up a certain amount of good will. Yet Mr Alden did not appear to believe that Handel’s brilliantly conceived displays of vocal prowess were entertainment enough on their own, and insisted on adding unreasonable physical demands, often to the detriment of the singers: thus Morgana, in her opening aria, was picked up and wheeled around by a half-man/half-gorilla during her most complex coloratura passage, and Oronte was forced to navigate his own first-act showpiece while leaping around and engaging in unnecessary pratfalls. When Alcina arrived to sing ‘Si, son quella’, sitting near the front of the stage and surrounded by a minimum of activity, it was as refreshing as the cool evening breeze that came in through the open sides of the amphitheatre.
Although things calmed down somewhat in the second act, the lack of visual clutter and excess activity did little more than reveal the absence of well-defined characters and a clearly-conceived story. There were a handful of memorable images – Alcina’s arm controlled by a rogue pink glove was a nice nod to Dr Strangelove – but little to bind them together. It was only in the deeply perplexing third act that Mr Alden’s concept began to emerge as the driving force behind the production, and by then it was essentially too late. The image of Alcina, reduced from ball-gown wearing mistress of her realm to an undesirable drunk intruding upon the rigid respectability of suburbia, was surprisingly potent, and the idea of Ruggiero ultimately rejecting Alcina’s dream world for a life of tract-house conformity with Bradamante was the closest the production came to a coherent argument. If only there had been anything in the previous two acts to prepare us for it. Instead, the last-minute attempts to impose a unified theme seemed both forced and unconvincing (and the scene of Oberto slaughtering the animals of the island in a slow-motion gun battle should never have made it even as far as the rehearsal stage).
Anna Christy (Morgana), Daniela Mack (Bradamante) and Wise Fool New Mexico in Haendel's Alcina. Harry Bicket, conductor. David Alden, director. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2017 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
The singers and orchestra were, to a great extent, able to redress the dramatic inconsistencies. At the centre of the evening were the two exceptional performances of Anna Christy as Morgana and Elza van den Heever in the title role. Ms Christy – a gifted comedienne as well as a singer of great intelligence and control – was a tightly coiled ball of energy who lit up the stage every time she appeared; she, more than anyone else, managed to transcend the ironic tendencies of the production by throwing herself wholeheartedly into the exaggerated carnality of her character. Her voice, with effervescent tone and unfailing agility, started the evening with a delightful ‘O s’apre al riso’, and would have turned ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ into a show-stopper even without the burlesque fan-dance accoutrements. (The decision to have her, rather than Alcina, sing this aria made complete sense in the context of the production). Although Ms Christy was most engaging in the high-spirited arias of the first act, her serious side – which made an appearance during the third act in ‘Credete al mio dolore’, accompanied by an on-stage cello – was no less convincing.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Alcina of Ms van den Heever who, with her full-bodied tone and dignified bearing, seemed to be the only character, at least in the first two acts, taking the idea of opera seria seriously. Whenever she was on stage, she was consistently the most compelling figure; even the orchestra seemed to play with greater attention when she appeared. Her beautifully nuanced ‘Si, son quella’ brought elegance, nobility and calm to the whirlwind of the first act and was unquestionably one of the evening’s finest moments. Her two arias in the second act were no less impressive (although the end of ‘Ombre pallide’ was slightly marred by an excess of cackling which, one suspects, was the fault of the director) and the wonderful ‘Ma quando tornerai’ in the third was a more convincing portrait of a tragic figure than anything suggested by the production.
Wise Fool New Mexico and Daniela Mack (Bradamante) in Haendel's Alcina. Harry Bicket, conductor. David Alden, director. Santa Fe Opera Festival 2017 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
The rest of the cast were generally excellent. Both the Ruggiero of Paula Murrihy and the Bradamante of Daniela Mack gathered in distinction as the evening progressed: Ms Mack was responsible for a lovely display of vocal agility in the second act aria ‘Vorrei vendicarmi’, and Ms Murrihy followed a luminous, haunted ‘Verdi prati’ in the second act with an exultant ‘Stà nell’ Ircana pietrosa tana’, accompanied by two horns, in the third. Alek Schrader’s Oronte was also a source of delight; his expressive coloratura passages – most notably in ‘Semplicetto, a donna credi’, sung with crowd-pleasing vigour – were paired with an engaging physical performance.
The small ensemble assembled by Harry Bicket, chief conductor of the Santa Fe opera, generated a detailed, period-informed sound full of sparkling texture and tireless animation (the addition of a baroque harp to the continuo was unusual but certainly not unwelcome). Mr Bicket’s feel for the structure and pacing of the individual arias was apparent throughout the evening: although much of the music tended toward fleetness, he never allowed it to feel rushed; and when he slowed the action down – as he did during ‘Verdi prati’ and the deliberate, highly focussed opening of Alcina’s ‘Ah mio cor!’ – he was able to create an almost mesmerising tension.
If Mr Alden’s production was the lone source of trouble in an otherwise enchanting evening, it may be because one longed for there to be more than there actually was: intriguing ideas were introduced and abandoned at such a furious pace that the drama itself seemed already to have changed its shape as soon as we’d found something to latch onto. Perhaps the arguments of the staging were, like everything on Alcina’s island, illusory; but even as the illusions vanished, the music remained undiminished.