Even Lacking Visuals, Handel’s Vivid Music Illustrates ‘Alcina’ CD

Mark Minkowski and his period-instrument orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre, have recorded many Handel operas since the ensemble’s founding in 1982. (Wikipedia)

Handel: Alcina. Magdalena Kožená and Anna Bonitatibus, mezzo-sopranos; Erin Morley, soprano; Les Musiciens du Louvre, conducted by Mark Minkowski. Pentatone (PTC: 5187084). 3 discs.

DIGITAL REVIEW — In the 1730s, the English public began to lose interests in the operas of Handel, who had once been their darling. The composer famously switched his focus to writing oratorios, one of the shrewdest career-path changes in music history. Yet Handel did continue to write operas during that decade. One of them was Alcina, from 1735, the fantastical story of an enchantress who lures Crusaders to her island in order to transform them into non-human things — that is, until she falls in love with one. Mark Minkowski has spearheaded a new recording of this magical opera on the Pentatone label.

Minkowski’s period-instrument orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre, has recorded many Handel operas since its founding in 1982. But it’s been a long time since the last one (Giulio Cesare in 2003 on the Archiv Produktion label), so this release is good news for Baroque opera fans.

The orchestra has plenty of chances to shine. Although Alcina was an Italian-language opera, Handel was clearly influenced by the French, including many orchestral dance movements, such as the Gavotte-Saraband-Menuet-Gavotte ballet suite in Act 1. With Minkowski’s energetic, clearly shaped phrasing and producer Laure Casenave-Péré’s soft-edged but densely colored sound, the instrumental movements are as dramatically satisfying as those with singing. The double-reed sound is especially entrancing (three oboes and three bassoons in the 44-person ensemble).

Just as essential is the orchestra’s careful playing in its role as accompanist, from theorbist Yasunori Imamura’s delicate arpeggios under recitatives to the lush ritornellos before arias like “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” (My tender passion bewitches me). When mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus, as Ruggiero, comes in with the A section of that aria, trying to convince himself that it’s okay to love Alcina, the orchestra recedes just enough, with fragmented phrases in the violins seeming to urge the love-struck knight to follow his heart.

In a role originally designed for castrato Giovanni Carestini, Bonitatibus never pushes the issue of masculinity, keeping her voice lyrical; nor does she allow passion to overtake control. In “Mio bel tesoro” (My beautiful treasure), as the vocal line converses with two recorders, she displays detailed levels of dynamics and moments of breathiness that are plenty of indication that she is intoxicated by love.

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená sings the title role, which Handel cast for his frequent collaborator, Anna Maria Strada, who was a soprano. Besides having a huge range, Kožená is a singer of great power and precision in both vocal and acting technique. Her voice nearly breaks (but doesn’t) as she delivers the falsely self-deprecating “Sì; son quella! Non più bella” (Yes, I am she, no longer lovely…) to mollify the jealous Ruggiero. With long, pure notes against the staccato orchestration of “Ah, mio cor! Schernito sei!” (Ah! my heart! You are scorned!), Kožená embodies the emotional paralysis that comes when anger and sorrow strike at the same time. In the B section, she simply erupts with rage.

Handel went to great pains to humanize the sorceress, particularly in her relationship with the handsome but maddeningly homesick Ruggiero. The impetus was the delicate handling of the characters in Antonio Marchi’s 1728 libretto — Handel acquired it from a Riccardo Broschi opera — which gives the story more sophisticated and subtle psychology than one finds in Francesca Caccini’s 1625 La liberation di Ruggiero, based on that same section of Arioso’s epic poem Orlando furioso.

The other important female role is Morgana, Alcina’s sister. She falls in love with a knight calling himself “Ricciardo” who is actually a woman named Bradamante, there to look for her lover. Soprano Erin Morley, as Morgana, has a resonant voice that sometimes suffers from too much vibrato. But she respectably conquers the challenge of singing one of the most beautiful arias in the opera, “Ama, sospira,” which Handel embroidered with an aching, meandering violin obbligato line.

Magdalena Kožená sings the title role. (Julia Wesely / Pentatone)

Countertenor Alois Mühlbacher plays the boy Oberto, who is searching for his father, a victim of one of Alcina’s transformational spells. After Alcina pretends that his father is fine, Mühlbacher gives a rousing rendition of “Tra speme e timore mi palpita il core” (My heart beats now for hope, now for fear), relishing the syncopations that propel the melody forward. Tenor Valerio Contaldo also stands out as Oronte, Bradamente’s lover, especially in the wild, virtuosic ornamentation of “È un folle, è un vile affetto” (It is my senseless and abject passion).

There was no one better in Handel’s day at writing for chorus. And while he didn’t use that texture nearly as much in operas as he did in oratorios, the last scene of the opera has two fine examples. The small size of the chorus (only nine singers are listed) leaves each voice too exposed in the slow-paced first section, but they gather strength and unity — perhaps the seven soloists join them — for the opera’s final encomium to love.

As musicologist Suzanne Aspden points out in her booklet essay, when Handel ended up presenting Alcina at the Royal Covent Garden instead of his accustomed King’s Theatre, it was considered a step down. But it also worked to his advantage because the “lesser” theater was geared toward pantomimes and thus better equipped for the kind of moving sets and props that allowed for great spectacle. It was surely an amazing thing to see; even with no visuals, this recording fills the mind’s eye with its own kind of magic.