Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Opera Guide 6: Alcina

I can't believe that I've waited until the sixth entry in this series to discuss my favorite opera composer, Handel, and my favorite of his operas, Alcina (1735). The plot of Alcina is taken from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532) and concerns the knight Ruggiero, who finds himself on the enchanted island of the beautiful sorceress Alcina. (The painting to the left is a detail from Niccolo dell'Abbate's "Alcina greeting Ruggiero," c. 1550). Ruggiero is lured--it's not entirely clear whether he's bewitched, or merely overwhelmed with desire--into abandoning his knight-errant quest and staying with Alcina in a delirium of sensual pleasure. Before long, though, his betrothed, Bradamante--in disguise as her brother, Ricciardo--and the sorcerer Melisso show up hoping to drag Ruggiero back to his martial (and marital) duties.

It turns out that Ruggiero is far from the first knight to have frolicked with Alcina; his predecessors have been turned into the rocks, trees, fountains, and animals that populate her lush island. Not only is Melisso out to rescue Ruggiero and liberate the other enchanted knights, he means to destroy Alcina's power as well.

In the 1999 Robert Carsen staging for the Opéra National de Paris, Alcina's former conquests remain as physical presences surrounding her and Ruggiero as they revel in their love during "Di cor mio, quanto t'amai."* The orchestra is the early-music ensemble Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. The chemistry between Renée Fleming (Alcina) and Susan Graham (Ruggiero) is palpable, and is key to the success of this production. Because in Handel’s telling Alcina has changed; she's no longer the evil sorceress dallying with and discarding men at whim. She has truly fallen in love with Ruggiero, and in a departure from Ariosto, it is the diminishment of his love for her, rather than any counter-spell by Melisso, that causes her power to begin to wane. It's not hard to see her magic power as a metaphor for erotic power; and her sense of helplessness as Ruggiero's love inexorably slips away is anguishing.

In "Si, son quella!" Alcina has just been accused by Ruggiero of unfaithfulness, and is deeply hurt. And Alcina's great aria “Ah! mio cor” is sung just after she has learned that Ruggiero is planning to leave her. “Traditore! T'amo tanto,” she cries; “Betrayer, I love you so much.” Fleming gives an impassioned performance; the opening (A) and second (B) sections can be seen here, and the da capo repeat of the A section here.

Handel's portrait of Alcina is immensely sympathetic. I won't speculate on whether Handel, a life-long bachelor, had any personal experience of the agonies of a failing love affair that may have informed it. I will suggest, though, that at the time he wrote Alcina Handel may have been aware of another impending loss. His opera company was struggling; just a few years later he would stop writing Italian operas altogether and shift to English-language oratorios based on properly moral biblical stories. There would be far fewer roles for Italian castrati (who sang in English with difficulty) and much less of opera's splendid artifice: the spectacular scenery, the uncannily beautiful voices, the playful gender-bending plot devices. Perhaps Alcina is such an affecting character because Handel could see that his own “magic island” was disappearing, and through her he was mourning its loss.

"Verdi prati" is Ruggiero's farewell to the sensuous paradise that he's now leaving--only he sounds dismayed, if not despondent, at its imminent destruction. This is not the sort of heroic renunciation that might have been expected, especially if we think that Ruggiero feels that he's been deceived by Alcina. No: his sense of loss is all too palpable. Nonetheless, he proceeds with Melisso's plan to destroy Alcina's power, liberate the men she has transformed, return her lush island to desert, and leave her abandoned. “Verdi prati” was written to be sung by the castrato Carestini, who supposedly complained that this aria didn't offer enough opportunities for virtuoso vocal display. It's hard to imagine, though, any singer complaining about being asked to sing a song of such beauty.

As I mentioned in my post on Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, in recent years countertenors such as Andreas Scholl and David Daniels have begun to take on roles originally written for castrati. The only problem with this idea in a Handel opera is that Handel himself never used countertenors. When he couldn't get a castrato for a male role, he would cast a woman instead--inventing the so-called “trouser role,” a convention that went on to be used by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Offenbach, and both Johann and Richard Strauss, among many others.

Apparently for Handel sound trumped gender in determining who should play a male role, and to his ears, a woman sounded more like a castrato than a countertenor did. That may be somewhat less true now than in the 18th century: certainly on a first hearing you wouldn't necessarily identify Scholl or Daniels as a man singing falsetto. They have developed their technique to a very high level, and don't have the hooty sound that used to characterize countertenors. But I have to say that, while I very much enjoy the eerily androgynous singing of countertenors, I think that having the “correct” gender isn't sufficient to qualify them to play high-pitched male roles. Where possible, we should continue to honor Handel's intentions. Insisting that male characters be played by men is impossibly dull and literal. Unlike Ruggiero (and some opera directors), we should value opera's magic island of artifice.

The Opéra National de Paris production has never been released on DVD, alas. The live audio recording (which includes Natalie Dessay as Alcina's sister Morgana, Kathleen Kuhlmann as Bradamante, and Laurent Naouri as Melisso) has been issued on the Erato label, and has divided opinion. Many early music purists are appalled by the vibrato-rich voices of the principals and their supposedly inauthentic ornamentation in the cadenzas and da capo aria repeats. For me those aspects pale into insignificance next to the singers' emotional commitment to their roles--I think that this is a superbly dramatic recording that truly brings the dilemmas of the characters to life.

Recently, a studio recording has been issued on the Arkiv label featuring the early-music ensemble Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis, with Joyce DiDonato in the title role, supported by Maite Beaumont (Ruggiero), Sonia Prina (Bradamante), Karina Gauvin (Morgana), and Vito Priante (Melisso). The excerpts I've heard seem to be sprightlier in tempo than those of Christie--and less dramatically compelling. I haven't heard the entire recording, though, so all judgement should be suspended. (You can hear DiDonato's "Ah! mio cor" here.)

On video, the only version currently available in the US is the Staatsoper Stuttgart production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. While it is well performed, the appalling staging undermines Handel's drama at every turn. Even playing it with the picture off isn't an option, as several arias are disrupted with noisy stage business. Wieler and Morabito are guilty of many crimes against Handel--why two people who could not make more clear their disdain for Baroque opera in general and Alcina in particular should have been put in charge of directing it is anyone's guess. Avoid at all costs, and hope that someday the Carsen version will finally be released.

* All the audience videos I've linked to and several others from this production can be found here. But I have to ask again: where is the official DVD release of this production?

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