Barbican’s 2014 Alcina (part II)
After my gushing initial post, here are
a few a bunch of additional comments. I hope this covers all 😉 for now.
Anna Christy, once again. She was heavily pregnant, as you could probably glean from the (other) picture. That didn’t impede her at all1. What cute joyfulness – that’s the kind of Morgana I want to see! Dessay used to do an excellent one (perhaps not quite as joyful, more darkly sensual) but I’ve never quite warmed up to her singing. Let me remind you again about Christy’s breath control, which one can only hope for what with all the long coloratura lines. Also, ringing notes and intelligent vocal choices. Her interaction with Bradamante was hilarious in its relentlessness which managed to never turn into tediousness or creepiness but always stayed giddily light-hearted. As I was saying, she had no qualms sticking it to big sis Alcina when she thought that, for once, she was the one who had kept someone’s love (Ama, sospira). You do get the feeling Morgana is tired of always living in Alcina’s shadow, reason for which she might have pounced on Bradamante so quickly. With Oronte her Morgana was first callously glib (remember who I am and who you are = ouch and oh, I’m in love with someone else now, bye!) then turned sheepish but still using her cuteness to work things out. I’d love to see her as Zerlina as well.
JDD (and Alcina’s dress): so, grey-green fish-scales, right? Alcina as a siren, of course. It was a gorgeous dress, of shantung and gauze, with a few layers and it was quite amusing how she maneuvered the tail between chairs. I’m not sure if the fish-scales were sewed on or the material was thus painted. I’d say the latter. I’m glad I could stare at it all night. I’ve seen JDD twice before, both times from ROH’s Amphitheatre. She looks smaller (as in, small boned) than from afar, but is obviously able to command the stage. And what a pleasure to actually see her legendary acting. I know she and Alice Coote have sung together before (even recorded) and have spoken well of each other and that was obvious in their interaction. By which I mean they were very cute in the beginning (Di, cor mio), when Alcina and Ruggiero are still very much in love, holding hands and smiling at each other. She did some very detailed ambivalence during Mio bel tesoro, where Ruggiero is slyly eluding the truth (that he no longer loves her).
I mentioned Ombre pallide as the highlight but I had to. Alcina has so many arias (6? 8? something insane like that) that span a lot of ground, from giddiness in love (Di, cor mio) to anger, hurt, slyness, threats (the gorgeous terzetto with Ruggiero and Bradamante) and pleading + anger (Ma quando tornerai). She was ferocious in the vindictive part of said aria and hurt in the B section. And you know JDD can blow your mind with her (coloratura) technique. All you need to know is she was in excellent voice and imagine what she can do. Initially I was a bit iffy because, hey, soprano role. Come to think of it, I have – weirdly – seen JDD only in soprano roles, which must tell you (and me) something. But this is a fairly low lying soprano role and I needn’t have worried. There was no vocal strain that I could hear from two yards away.
Alice Coote: Ruggiero fits her very well. There’s a gentleness and sensitivity about her singing and acting that works for this knight caught at a not-so-heroic moment. It might be a good moment to remind you that, despite its title, Orlando furioso‘s main character is indeed Ruggiero. Weirdly, opera, for all its fascination with this poem, has focused not on Ruggiero’s feats of arms, but on his time under Alcina’s spell (he’s still very young here). So we only get to see him as a determined knight at the very end. He spends most of the opera either in an amorous daze or confused about what’s real and what is not. Which is, granted, quite interesting, an apt representation of youth. AC does confusion very well and, er, she’s way cute as a puppy in love. I liked her very slow transition from Ruggiero’s being totally in thrall of Alcina to the sly breakaway during Mio bel tesoro, where she had on one of those just-ate-the-canary grins.
Ruggiero has three more relationships – 1) the other important one, with fiancee (or wife, as they say here) Bradamante, 2) with Melisso/Atlante, his mentor2 3) and Oronte, who makes him feel jealous of Alcina’s supposed interest in “Ricciardo”. No wonder poor Ruggiero is confused, nobody around him is who they say they are. In the beginning Ruggiero is annoyed with “Ricciardo” and “Melisso” and AC did a subtly ironic job with the quirky Di te mi rido, where Ruggiero makes fun of them and the hahahahas in the coloratura are – for once – actual hahahahas.
Christine Rice: sang Bradamante, one of the most interesting medieval characters. Talk about a proto-liberated woman. Bradamante is in love with Ruggiero but that doesn’t mean she’s going to wait for him to finish his knightly – or not so knightly – pursuits. In fact, even more hands-on than here, in the book she’s effectively rescuing him all the time. I guess in the opera she needed to travel with Melisso in tow and look like a proper lady. So it might sound a bit funny when, at the end, she says she will fight Alcina’s soldiers and monsters with her sword and shield. But in Orlando furioso she’s rescuing damsels in distress left and right. I guess Ruggiero likes strong women 😉 Here, poor Bradamante has to put up with both her lover making out with another woman and not knowing who she is and Morgana’s unwanted but constant advances. There’s something to be explored here in that post about gender in opera I am plotting.
So CR did sadly taken aback then desperate to make Ruggiero see her for who she is, and finally relieved but no less heroic – in relation to Ruggiero. It was a good idea that she maintained the heroic stance even after revealing her identity to Ruggiero as JDD’s Alcina was so strong even after her magical powers failed her, there needed to be two of them to stand up to her. In relation to Morgana, her Bradamante was somewhat amused then compliant but uncomfortable with lying even when faced with being transformed into a beast by Alcina. Bradamante is very upright, yanno. Vocally she delivered a muscular Vorrei vendicarmi – the A section is basically an interminable coloratura line that she nailed like it was nothing. I was actually looking to see when she would turn the page and the line just kept going on and on. Bradamante’s part is, I think, a proper bitch, because it’s low lying with lots of fast coloratura that you need to project somehow. I also remember a good job on the more complex but no less difficult E gelosia, when Bradamante tries to calm down a jealous Oronte who has challenged “Ricciardo” to a duel. Later she was so amused by Anna Christy’s antics as Morgana, she was chuckling even whilst sat to the side.
Ben Johnson: I was reading about the 2013 Cardiff Competition and apparently some thought Ben Johnson was unfairly overlooked. Whatever the reason for that he did an excellent job here as Oronte (unless it was a different Ben Johnson!). Not quite as exquisite a voice as Zorzi Giustiniani‘s (and would probably move on from Baroque later on) but a totally committed singer with enviable breath control. For what it’s worth, I was humming Un momento di contento on the way home. He was less coldly scheming, more of a lover Oronte than usually portrayed. Still, his manipulation of Ruggiero during Semplicetto, a donna credi was spot-on, complete with glances as his “victim” to check for effect. Also his “hurt” at Morgana’s fickleness was amusing and the subsequent forgiveness (Un momento di contento) was believable. Speaking of this aria, I like the sharp change in rhythm from the lyrical main tune to the very urgent next one. He forgives her but… As an aside, I dug his bright red socks to go with the conservative tux.
Wojtek Gierlach: sang a congenial and often funny Melisso; lovely – wait for it – warm tone, well showcased in Pensa a chi geme d’amor, where he’s chiding Ruggiero for forsaking Bradamante. What a great aria, eh? Like I said, no duds, Handel in high form. I love singing along to the abandonnata, crudel, da te part.
Anna Devin: was a spirited Oberto. Oberto isn’t part of the original story, Handel shoe-horned him in for some reason – maybe to humanise Alcina, who’s showing some maternal instincts towards him? I think our modern sensitivity finds Alcina human enough but maybe 18th century audiences didn’t feel the same way. Although more advanced than before as morals went, they did not think in feminist terms. Oberto turns out to be Bradamante’s cousin’s son, more reason for Bradamante to right wrongs on Alcina’s island. But he’s a kid and there’s only so much you can do with a kid. First he’s in anguish at having lost track of his father then he’s defying Alcina, who, in a fit of cruelty at seeing her powers crumble, has ordered him to kill the lion who is really his father and is being affectionate towards him (I know, weird, but it’s a fantastical plot). Given these constraints, Devin did great with her arias: coloratura, acting, breath control = all checked.
Whew. The orchestra started in fine form with the overture, which is lovely. I just love the di-di di-di dadadadada di-di di-di playfulness, whatever it’s meant – if anything – to say. I take it to illustrate the make believe nature of the subject. Nothing to bitch about the orchestra, it kept the proceedings going swiftly. This opera can languish on occasion but it wasn’t the case. I noticed that Bicket wasn’t afraid to engage with the drama during Alcina’s more anguished recitatives. Nice interventions from the solo instruments. The recorders during Mio bel tesoro sounded particularly ominous and even claustrophobic. But, again, that might be me. I’ve always sided with Alcina and I don’t like it that Ruggiero ends up lying to her. Bradamante is cool and everything but couldn’t she just find another knight to fall in love with? There should be an opera focusing on her knightly pursuits but for this one I’d rather have Alcina and Ruggiero stay together in the end.
- Sorry, mums, I don’t know how pregnancy impacts one’s ability to sing; plenty singers seem to be a-ok but for on-lookers like me it appears a bit hazardous. That’ll be one Baroque-loving kid. I can only wish my mum sung that – and like that – when she was pregnant with me! She actually taught literature 8th months into the pregnancy which probably explains my verbosity ;-) ↩
- Although in Orlando furioso Atlante is a sorcerer himself and gets Ruggiero into trouble all the time. But what’s a knight without trouble to get into?! Still, I wish the opera included the bit where Bradamante’s – amorous!!! – hippogriff whisks Ruggiero off for a walk on Alcina’s beach. You can’t even trust your steed these days, eh. There are some interesting interactions here… ↩