Monday, November 13, 2017

WNO's Alcina Is All About Gorgeous Singing

For those who love beautiful singing and acrobatic coloratura, the Washington National Opera's performance of Handel's Alcina is a feast. With few exceptions the singers' voices were carefully picked to suit their respective roles to perfection, with Angela Meade given the choice of a Handel heroine she felt would best showcase her heretofore rarely heard capabilities. The singing was so wonderful this past Saturday, that you could just close your eyes and let the music take you to Alcina's enchanted island. Judging by the enthusiastic applause after each aria, the audience appreciated the effort.

But there is more to opera than lovely voices and spectacular singing. This production of Alcina was too anemic for my taste. While I am sure that conductor Jane Glover, making her WNO debut, led the ensemble in a true Handelian style, watching her languid movements from my side made me wish it were Antony Walker instead of her. I kept imagining what energy he might have infused into the performance.

The setting of WNO's Alcina is reminiscent of an underwater cave
The setting was a dark stage with a big circular opening backstage, that could have represented an exit from an underwater cave. The action took place center-stage on a well lit elevated circle. And there were white square seats on each side where members of the chorus would sometimes sit. Other than the lighting, not much changed throughout the two-and-hald-hour long show. Very little happened in terms of action, except for the singers's arrivals and departures and an occasional ballet number. The direction seemed to go along with the sedate pace of conducting. The stage livened up considerably with the appearances of soprano Ying Fang whose Morgana was not only charming, but also incredibly charismatic. She also made mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and tenor Rexford Tester more interesting when they interacted with her.
Soprano Yin Fang gives a charming portrayal of Alcina's sister Morgana
Angela Meade did not have that effect. I've seen her live on stage and in cinemas and she is an excellent singer, but whose voice I could never remember or recognize if I did not see her. Given preference, I would prefer to hear her in a concert performance. What Meade lacks in looks to be convincing in the role of a seductive enchantress, could have been compensated by persuasive interpretation. But to this ear she added nothing to convey "the alluring power of illusion," which seemed to be the goal of director Anne Bogart.

Alcina is a character taken from Ariosto's Orlando furioso. She attracts and traps various men who stumble upon her island and when she gets tired of them turns them into streams, beast, trees and rocks. Her current lover is Ruggiero, otherwise engaged to Bradamante. Alcina's General Oronte warns him that the sorceress will soon tire of him too and will want to get rid of him. Bradamante, disguised as a man, comes to the island to rescue her man. She is accompanied by Melisso, Ruggerio's former tutor. There is also a chorus representing Alcina's victims, and the WNO production seems to have dispensed with the character of Oberto, a boy soprano who is searching for his father.


Costume designer James Schuette has made some inexplicable choices. The chorus can take on various roles in modern productions of Alcina and members are dressed accordingly. In this one, men and women are dressed in mismatched black clothes: women in mostly evening gowns and men in uniforms, underwear and in one case a satin robe, perhaps suggesting the magic spells hit them all at a different time. Alcina's magenta satin gown is complemented with the same color embroidered overcoat, but Morgana is dressed in a pink tulle dress that could have been borrowed from a Balanchine ballet. An extra flounce is added at the waist perhaps to make her slim figure fuller. For most of the performance Ruggiero and Bradamante wear camouflage uniforms that could have been taken from a performance of Cosi fan tutte from a few years ago. Before Alcina's spell is removed, Ruggiero stumbles around in a tobacco-colored satin pajamas and an unattractive dressing gown.

Angela Meade displays her vocal powers in Alcina
Most of the signers are women, including mezzo Elizabeth DeShong who portrays Ruggiero. They outperform the tenor and the baritone portraying Melisso and Oronte.

Stories set in enchanted locations such as The Tempest, Armida or Alcina give producers infinite possibility of creating original magic worlds, as we have seen for example in Met's pastiche The Enchanted Island. Often they are transferred to modern times. Dresden's Alcina a few years ago was a glamorous femme fatal who takes pleasure in seducing and destroying men. In the Semperoper's production, Bradamante was Ruggiero's wife and mother of his two children. She came to Alcina's place accompanied with Melisso as her lawyer, who helped her persuade Ruggiero to return to his family. 

The WNO's production seeks to invoke the mesmerizing qualities of our contemporary culture, awash with electronic gadgets with their promises of instant gratification. But if it imparted any message of wisdom, it did not come out clear. This production achieved all the effect of a good concert opera performance.  Alcina perished and the chorus came to life - truly came to life - after Glover finally poured some energy into her conducting. Alas, the moment was too brief.

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