Postmodern ‘Alcina’ In Baroque Style – And Gender Melee

Oberto (Jacquelyn Stucker, holding knife) threatens Alcina (Elza Van Den Heever) when he discovers what she’s done to his father (dancer Apollo Garcia Orellano) in Handel’s ‘Alcina.’ Photos by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.
By Rodney Punt

SANTA FE, N.M. — Before he was known as the composer of sacred oratorios, the most famous one being Messiah, George Frideric Handel had a lot of fun trafficking in operatic sin. The triumphs of virtue may have sent his audiences home from the theater, but it was the titillation of sin that brought them there.

Handel’s Alcina, which received its belated Santa Fe Opera premiere on July 29, was premiered at London’s Covent Garden in 1735 at the height of the composer’s operatic popularity. Its rescue plot is predecessor to works like Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute, and later Beethoven’s Fidelio. One of Handel’s biggest hits, Alcina enjoyed two revivals in London and one in Germany before a change in public taste relegated it, along with all of Handel’s operas, to the dust bin. Not until the Baroque music revival of the 20th century did his works for the stage regain favor.

Morgana (Anna Christy) with member of Wise Fool New Mexico.

But here’s the rub: Musical and staging aspects of Baroque operas have taken entirely different paths since Handel’s day. Today’s musicians attempt to replicate, as best as possible, the sounds of Handel’s era. But staging Baroque operas in their creaky original styles would be ridiculous. Today’s directors can let their imaginations take flight. Frequent Santa Fe guest artist David Alden draws on both libido and imagination for the riot of liberties he unleashes with this Alcina.

Handel may have been his own unidentified librettist in this magic-isle fantasy of love’s betrayals and delusions manipulated by a lascivious sorceress. In today’s lingo a serial cougar, Alcina (soprano Elza van den Heever) attracts and soon tires of her men, but never sends them home. Her appetites once sated, she transforms them into lower animal forms to hang around like stuffed zoo specimens, her trophies. The opera opens with search parties setting out to find the ex-lovers and return them home.

Alden’s postmodern conception displaces the proceedings from an island to a tawdry movie theater reminiscent of the one in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, where lonely-heart Mia Farrow watches the same movie every day until its on-screen reel-life cast walks off it into her own real life. Alden’s stage takes his cast into a bizarre collection of old movie props, animal costumes, and prehistoric specimens recast as the detritus of Alcina’s former conquests. Scenes and costumes are by Gideon Davey, the stage lit by Malcolm Rippeth. The acrobatics of those animals that spring to life later are from the company Wise Fool New Mexico, under the artistic direction of Amy Christian.

Alek Shrader, as Oronte, faced directorial challenges.

Sorting it all out is complicated by female roles originally designed for male countertenors. Alden’s revisionism has more gender ambiguities than an Andy Warhol party from the Swinging Sixties.

Alcina’s current flame is the bewitched Ruggiero (mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy), who has forgotten his fiancé, Bradamante (mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack). But she hasn’t forgotten him and bravely sets out on a rescue mission disguised as her brother, Ricciardo. Accompanying her is her tutor, Melisso (bass-baritone Christian van Horn). Complications pile on when Alcina’s sister, Morgana (soprano Anna Christy), falls for “Ricciardo,” forsaking her own fiancé Oronte (tenor Alek Shrader). Add to the mix young Oberto (soprano Jacquelyn Stucker), who searches for his father, Alcina’s earlier conquest.

The resolution of the dilemma will depend on Bradamante’s ability to disable Alcina’s magical power. While figuring out the unfolding action, imaginatively choreographed by Beate Vollack, one could sit back and relish Handel’s glorious melodies, sung nearly to perfection, and supported by Harry Bicket’s virtuoso Baroque-sized orchestra. Characterized by crisp and propulsive phrasings, with vibrato-less strings of uncannily accurate intonation, its performance set a high standard. Bicket, the Santa Fe Opera’s chief conductor, knows the work intimately, having led a recent London performance with the English Concert he inherited from Trevor Pinnock. In the work’s celebratory last minutes, the horns capped a fine orchestral outing with brilliant fanfares.

Bradamante (Daniela Mack) is engaged to Ruggiero (Paula Murrihy).

The cast was strong. Alden had them singing while on top of chairs, lying down, being restrained, wearing animal masks, or manipulating all kinds of outlandish props. His frenetic sight-gags and stage pacing competed with the long-winded stretches of Handel’s da capo arias, an engaging but not always appropriate Alden signature. Ears that want to indulge the music are distracted by eyes that must dart about to follow the action.

Van den Heever’s campy Alcina, somewhat less agile of movement than her role might have called for, wore as symbol of her seductive powers (and in lieu of Handel’s magic wand) a pink arm-length cocktail glove. Her plummy soprano was dominant on stage, but on opening night a tad under pitch with the orchestra. When her magic spell is later broken, she turned in an animated performance as a bag-lady on the streets, one of Alden’s more inspired gags.

Melisso (Christian Van Horn) with Ruggiero (Paula Murrihy).

Daniela Mack’s well-projected Bradamante conveyed iron-fisted determination in overcoming all odds, aided by Christian Van Horn’s ringing bass-baritone as her tutor, Melisso. One good trick deserving another, the magic ring they wielded finally rids all on stage of Alcina’s predatory powers.

Mezzo-soprano Murrihy, in a cross-dressing role as the captivated Ruggiero, exuded the matinee-idol looks of an Errol Flynn. As the love object of two women, attention focused more on Ruggiero’s fate, as he struggled under Alcina’s spell, than that of the titular star.

Anna Christy’s Morgana had real stage presence and a bright, projecting soprano in her play for “Ricciardo.” Tenor Alek Shrader’s jilted general Oronte lamented over Morgana’s wandering affections, but was sweetly reconciled with a chair-hopping Morgana in Handel’s charming make-up patter.

Alcina (Elza van den Heever) wields a pink cocktail glove to seduce lovers.

The most affecting role was that of the boy Oberto looking for his father. Here, the deeper implications of sexual energy’s destructive power played out. Stucker’s heart-rending delivery of Oberto’s quest to find his lost dad gave pause to the flamboyant goings-on when the boy intuits the silent man in a lion’s head sitting next to him on a park bench is, or more likely was, his father. Closure, if not reconciliation.

All is set right in the last scene with the once-pixilated lovers reunited with their rightful partners (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Oberto’s toy houses, once carried in his box, are transformed into elegant life-size homes. The boy has survived his sad search to become an architect in his maturity.

By indignities men come to dignities. Alcina offers a light-hearted, perhaps bittersweet, reminder that the blandishments of love must be kept in balance with the responsibilities of life.

Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.

Alcina’s sister Morgana (Anna Christy, dancing on chair), with Bradamante (Daniela Mack, kneeling) and members of Wise Fool New Mexico acrobatic troupe.