George Frideric Handel's beguiling opera Alcina premiered in London in 1735 in a 1,800-seat theater at the Covent Garden Theatre set on the site of the current Royal Opera House. It was popular during Handel's day, and proved a hit over three centuries later on Saturday night at the nearly packed Santa Fe Opera's 2,128-seat Crosby Theatre.
The seasonal debut of the four-hour baroque opera was presented by Harry Bicket, the London-grown conductor who played the harpsichordist in the Handel tradition before an impressive cast handled by prolific New York director David Alden—one known for his postmodern approach to the stage.
"It was time for us to do a Baroque opera again," Daniel R Zillman, the director of media and public relations at SFO, tells SFR, adding that the repertory last presented the dramatic style of 17th- and 18th-century artistic expression in Handel's Agrippina in 2005 and again in Vivaldi's Griselda in 2011.
Alcina demands the audience's attention with a mixture of expressive arias and sensual recitatives. "It's a unique monkey dance," Zillman says. "Great baroque music and one of the most fun productions I've seen on this stage."
The story of Alcina originated with Ludovico Ariosto's 1532 poem "Orlando Furioso," featuring God, the Archangel Michael, Charlemagne and Merlin. Italian composer Riccardo Broschi wrote the libretto for a 1728 opera; Handel recycled that libretto and made the bewildering baroque genre accessible by slimming the cast to four main characters.
In the latest version, a sorceress named Alcina lures lovers to her island—an abandoned theater under Alden's direction—and holds them under her spell until she tires of them, turning them into beasts, rocks and plants. As we join, Alcina captures Ruggiero, a young man who comes to forget his fiance, Bradamante.
As Alden explains in the show's program, Ruggiero "escapes his mundane life by sneaking into an abandoned theatre and conjuring up the image of his ideal woman, Alcina—opera diva, entertainer, seductress." Alden notes that he was "loosely inspired" by Woody Allen's 1985 movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which "Mia Farrow's character escapes her drab existence by watching the same film day after day, until the characters on screen join her in her reality."
In the first of three acts, Bradamante, disguised as her own brother Ricciardo, visits the theater with her tutor Melisso to rescue Ruggiergo. Alcina's sister, Morgana, falls in love with "Riccardio," even though she's already loved by Oronte, Alcina's general. Meanwhile, Oberto, a young boy, asks "Riccardio" and Melisso to help him find his father, also a captive of Alcina's love spell.
The plot might seem complicated. But, with a bit of focus and suspension of belief—made easier by the nighttime performance beneath Santa Fe stars—the storyline is easy enough to follow, even for a first time opera-goer such as this reporter.
Bicket's interpretation of Handel's music accentuates the hearty themes of passion, jealousy and revenge, even if bringing Ruggiero back to reality means "a bittersweet 'happy ending'" with him marrying Bradamante in suburbia. Alden asks, "Will he ever truly shake off the haunting Alcina?"
Alden also added to Handel's exploration of "gender-fluidity" of "male and female role-playing" by casting women to play Ruggiero and Bradamante, as well as Oberto. "When Bradamante, Ruggiero's fiancee sung by a mezzo, dresses as a man to rescue her lover, a man sung originally by a castrato but today by a mezzo, you almost need a scorecard to track the complications and gender-bending titillation."
The cast is led by powerful soprano Elza van den Heever, who plays a seductive Alcina. Though darkly unhinged, the enchantress shows signs of grief and appears almost sympathetic in her struggle to keep her lover. Does she really care for Ruggiero? Would Ruggiero be better off in the theatre than suburbia?
Sharing the stage, mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy gives an agile performance as the charmed Ruggiero. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack impresses in both her male and female roles, as bass-baritone Christian Van Horn helps inspire the entertaining search throughout the theatre. Soprano Anna Christy may steal the show, however, as the controlling and flirtatious Morgana, drawing laughs during her humorous and often sexualized dances beside beasts played by acrobats from local circus troupe, Wise Fool New Mexico.
The audience is assured laughs, but the dreamlike nature of Alcina inspires more private chucking than howling. Nonetheless, the cast received heavy applause throughout the performance.
Scenic and costume designer Gideon Davey, lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, and choreographer Beate Vollack create a minimalistic setting that keeps the focus on the singers. The performance called the crowd to consider the overall nature of events. And so doing, SFO’s Alcina becomes a first-rate introduction to baroque opera and an enjoyable way to spend a night thinking about the blurred lines of reality and fantasy in one’s own life.