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Alcina of dashed hopes (Geneve, 25 February 2016)

I generally try to approach a performance as objectively as possible. Let’s just say that I’m in a funny (as in not funny) mood today (this month) due to things that have nothing to do with Handel. In any case, I had the choice of writing when in a mardy mood or not writing at all. If you want to see this production click here.

Alcina: Nicole Cabell
Ruggiero: Monica Bacelli
Morgana: Siobhan Stagg
Bradamante: Kristina Hammarstrom
Oronte: Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani
Melisso: Michael Adams
Conductor: Leonard Garcia Alarcon | Grand Theatre de Geneve

Overture: it’s correct but I sense a lack of enthusiasm. That could be me. I don’t like the very low resolution offered by ARTE. Then again, the production is very dark and low light conditions are always detrimental to high res. The curtain opens soon into the overture to reveal hunting house or cabin in the woods overgrown with weeds – but also boasting a table set for dinner (Great Expectations?). Melisso and Bradamante (in vague military gear) show up with torches and find a stuffed bear but also some corsets behind a curtain. I guess it could be a love nest for outdoorsy types but it’s also a bit tired Alcina staging. Verily, this production has drawn on all the other productions I have seen.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s me – again – but I feel like I want no stagings. Just give me good singing and precise personnenregie and leave me with my own imagination.

They think they have been sneaky but Morgana (in pink kimono) has already set her eye on Bradamante. Stagg isn’t bad at the sex kitten thing in that it reminds of a loud drunken babe on a Saturday night. Her method of seduction is full on. One of her techniques is to grab at Bradamante, which, of course, startles the object of her attention, who doesn’t want her cover blown from the getgo. It made me wonder if Morgana did not perhaps zero in to her being a woman and tried to convey she rather liked it. Then again, I’m way less objective today. But what can you want from this? It’s seduction island. Wouldn’t it be funny if Bradamante went out to free her lover from the snares of another only to herself end up ensnared?

People say “why don’t you write your own opera if you don’t like the libretto?” – because it’s more efficient to use stage direction instead of embarking on a whole new opera with the single aim of having the old opera play out slightly different.

Anyway, Bradamante is still upright and sneakily gets rid of a glass of blue flambante. I wouldn’t have drunk it either since it looked vicious rather than enticing. There’s a reason why Morgana isn’t top dog.

Enter the power couple, though it’s strictly up to Alcina to hold the power bit. Ruggiero is some lapdog among a bunch of other fops who in this production have not been turned into topiary. Too bad. Alcina’s golden ’20s hairstyle is impressive. Cabell does regal without problems but given the muppets she has to work with we can’t talk about sizzle. It’s obvious during Di, cor mio that Cabell and Bacelli have a good rapport but – given this staging – who cares? There are 2 1/2 hours to go.


Oronte and some Baroque fruit

But do you know who else is in this production? Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani. Let’s ffwd to Semplicetto, a donna credi because this Ruggiero is really that semplice. Very refreshing flute details in this version and expressive singing from Giustiniani, who seems to have a ball with both sections. Can we have Alcina try to put the moves on this one instead? He tosses a manly beer at Ruggiero which apparently makes this muppet gutsy enough to confront Alcina about her supposed unfaithfulness.


Ruggiero packs his toys and goes home

So how about this dude that’s currently with Alcina? The way things are going I can’t imagine Sta nell’Ircana, so I’m just going to ffwd to that bit. Military attire, brandishes a weapon, Alcina walks out half way through. Says it all. The random trills must mean this dude is cookoo. Is this a valid take? Who cares.

Listen, if you want people to find out about whatever bits might be interesting in the middle (like how Morgana and Oronte – the only characters I vaguely cared about here – deal with their issues) you have to give them something along the way.

Just because my curiosity has ebbs and flows, I skipped ahead and I have to say Alcina’s Io son perduta was gorgeously done, credibly lonely and desperate, which in turn kept me around for Me restano le lagrime, which was pretty good (not the most memorable middle for Cabell).

It’s probably better than I give it credit for though between this and last year’s Audi production it would be hard to go for a favourite. The most recent favourite remains the Moscow concert performance (I never finished the Aix one either and I don’t see myself going back to it any time soon).

Alcina this February

Say 4th of February finds you on the French Riviera, you could spend a few hours with this motley cast and Handel’s finest work from 1735:

Sonya Yoncheva
Philippe Jaroussky
Emöke Barath
Delphine Galou ❤
Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani ❤!
Christian Senn
Hasnaa Bennani

or you can skip to Geneve (8 (performances) for this cast:

Nicole Cabell
Monica Bacelli
Siobhan Stagg
Kristina Hammarström
Erlend Tvinnereim / Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani
Michael Adams
bonus: no Oberto!

rather balanced casts.

The very clement and sleepy Tito (Geneve, 2006)

This is worth delving into for the sake of the Antonacci/JDD pairing. How would two singers who resist easy categorisation work together to bring out two characters that aren’t easy to pin down either?

Tito: Charles Workman
Vitellia: Anna Caterina Antonacci
Sesto: Joyce DiDonato
Annio: Marie-Claude Chappuis
Servilia: Corinna Mologni
Publio: Martin Snell
Conductor: Christian Zaccarias | Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne et Choeur de Grand Théâtre de Genève, 6 May 2006

What with being distracted by many (not so musical) things this month, I completely failed to watch the Fiesole Tito, so instead I decided to finish this review I started back in September, seeing as it was already 1/3 written. The Fiesole one is pushed back to February.

Overture: hey, I like it! It’s got character (albeit of the old fashioned sort) and a lot of energy. Good job, maestro.

Ma che, sempre l’istesso…: the continuo is piano this time and it underscores the last chord of the overture. Tongue-in-cheek? It seems so, followed by Antonacci channeling Varady’s cutting irony. It’s not bad at all but I can’t stand her guts. JDD is a lot less forceful than in last year’s Chicago performance. This one’s a rather nervous Sesto. He must think Vitellia is out of his league. Clearly that’s what she thinks. I like ACA’s speaking voice better than the singing one. I kinda wanted them to keep on talking.

Come ti piace, imponi!: Antonacci slams down on the seduction pedal. Vitellia is completely in control. Sesto, grow a pair, mate (ok, JDD definitely did in Chicago and there I complained about that. There’s no winning 😉 ). I like how the orchestra starts strong but then dials it back a little, as Sesto isn’t quite as macho as he’d like to (or how Vitellia would want need (this one only needs Sesto)). Isn’t it annoying that Sesto and Vitellia only get one (so short) duet in the whole opera? I get why, but still.

Annio brings the first news of the day: Chappuis’ voice has some interesting colours, interesting in the sense that it can sound oddly different within the same phrase, let alone a longer conversation. She sounds very bright as she starts, but opaque when a rather peeved Annio answers Vitellia’s sarcastic comments. ACA does sarcasm very well, but Veronique Gens is even better (Roschmann is already way beyond sarcasm). There are some hilariously arse-kissing lines here for Annio (Rome is creaming over Tito’s super generous decision to forgo his own pleasure for the whims of its citizens!!!!).

Not sure Vitellia and Sesto’s the plan is off! aside came off as strong and as absurd as it could have. Vitellia sounded distracted then slightly aggravated, which is an interesting take but Sesto was left with some sort of puppy confusion and not a bit of anger. In this director’s view Sesto is always outshined by Vitellia which I have a feeling inconvenienced JDD who is otherwise such a capable actress. It feels like given these parameters she couldn’t find anything to make Sesto more interesting.

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: the winds of Thor are blowing cold. She’s Baroness Bogdanoff of Venus in Furs. With each high note the whip delivers another blow. Hey, the public loved it so much it makes me wonder… I hated it (but I can’t fault ACA for that).

Deh, prendi on dolce amplesso: everyone’s rushing somewhere. I guess Tito’s waiting. The boys mix pleasantly. Sesto seems to gloss over what just happened.

March/Serbate dei custodi: very quick, trumpets Baroque-y. The choir works hard to keep up. It’s kinda funny, having these resolute bits when Tito himself is 

Loot: it’s the version where Publio and Annio kiss some major imperial arse first. Workman sounds sleepy.

The March reprise is very subdued, intimate. Tito+BFFS’ recit follows well. Workman continues along the same sleepy lines. It’s a buddy kind of Tito, not an authoritarian emperor. JDD’s Sesto is feeling quite bad already. Chappuis’ Annio is honourable. There’s a chipper piano accompaniment which I liked. Adds to the intimate feel.

Del piu sublime soglio: this Tito is earnest and I think he feels the servitu more than anything. Workman’s tone isn’t bad but a bit whiny and potato-mouth-y.

Annio/Servilia recit, Ah perdona al primo affetto: pretty good interaction. Vocally mixing well during the duet.

Servilia/Tito recit: I don’t like Mologni’s squeaky voice or her interpretation of this scene… both sound thrown together. Tito is honourable again. Still sleepy.

Ah se fosse intorno al trono: gentle, relaxed (sleepy?) tu-tu-tu-tus/accompaniment. Wish Workman’s voice had more colours because I like the idea behind it. I also like the continuo piano’s reprise of the main tune.

Servilia/Vitellia hair pulling scene: not much hair pulling, goes by in a flash. Also not much Ancora mi schernisce! fuming. Antonacci is too subtle in her irony. Mologni is, in fact, more cutting, but ouch at that abrasive voice.

pre-Parto recit: Vitellia did not work herself up during the previous, so this is one of the mildest Vitellia/Sesto arguments I’ve heard. Antonacci does sound rather seductive during corri, mi vendica, e son tua. JDD follows her mellow lead, which makes sense but doesn’t give her Sesto the opportunity to get all torn.

Parto (September thoughts): JDD’s Sesto is full-on heroic for the twin partos. The backing is so relaxed, it almost sounds like a serenade. This is the prettiest Parto I’ve heard from JDD (especially the soulful pp repeated guardami). Her voice sounds fuller or darker here than usual. The coloratura is unsurprisingly aced. Still, it’s a bit low in intensity. I wouldn’t blame JDD for that, we know she can turn it up. It’s rather the entire approach that she has to work with. In that context, I commend her professionalism. It wouldn’t do to go it alone for the sake of glory. The public goes wild anyway 😉

Parto (November thoughts): Parrrrrto, vorrrrai, farrrrro… this Sesto rrrrrrrreally wants to placate his Vitellia. I, on the other hand, want to deck her, she (Vitellia) sounds like a rrrrrrright bint1. JDD does some surprising palatalisation for anyone hailing so far West of Budapest. The coloratura is wondrous, the rest a bit underwhelming and girlish.

Vedrai, Tito, vedrai: what’s up with the low intensity? Isn’t this a woo-hoo, take that, Tito, and shove it! kind of moment? Cesare…? was great though. She’s like whoa? I mean what? She thinks she’s more clued-up than she actually is.

Vengo…! Aspetatte…! Sesto…!: ACA sounds rather morose here. Tormented not so much. It’s more for fuck’s sake! than OMGomgOMG! A high D FFS! 😉 The high D should fall on sake, eh?

Act I finale

JDD continues with the rolled Rs (traditorrrrrrr). I’d like to but I can’t blame JDD for making this into more of a mad scene than it really is – considering the lame-o Sesto she had to work with up to this point (and beyond). I bet she couldn’t get here fast enough, screw Parto and Deh, per questo. It’s been all Vitellia this, Vitellia that up to this point. Her shadow permeates every scene. Finally it’s all about Sesto. Trouble is, Sesto’s personality hasn’t come through so it’s like why is he about to set fire to Rome if he likes Tito so much? He’s been all yes, Vitellia, ok, Vitellia, so what the hell. I mostly blame the production, which is all about Vitellia, partly JDD who, as I said before, just isn’t Sesto.

The others: Servilia at her most matronly, Publio at his most heroic. Vitellia wants to find Sesto so she can slap him around for having one thought of his own at the wrong moment. Sesto wants to die because he realises he has neither Vitellia’s love nor is he worthy of Tito’s friendship anymore. Pretty shitty position.

It’s a very Romantic take but loses a bit of steam once the choir starts its lamentation. It’s a bit tricky maybe, because after private and public dramas are being played out the music just fizzles into silence.

Act II

Annio, with his pitched, girly voice, squeaks his good news to Sesto. OMG! says Sesto, I love him so much! Annio: Dear god, and you betrayed him?!? Sesto: Err… umm… I mean… Annio gets crafty: The fire brigade hasn’t decided on the causes of the fire yet. Maybe they won’t… You’re really helpful, buddy.

Torna di Tito a lato: there are some funny stage noises, like if a wooden stick is hitting the stage a few times. Annio is alarmed. Just how girly can Annio sound? (Very.)

Parti deggio…?: JDD continues to sound rather detached (which she tends to cover by getting louder, though not here. Here she keeps a level sound, which could mean Sesto is whispering. By himself he’s mildly confused; in his interaction with Vitellia he’s composed but not heroic; I liked the bit with Publio best: Sesto’s trying to front only not very well. Publio himself is hardly menacing). Vitellia is panicky but cold = a Sesto, get the hell outta here! kinda thing. I don’t know that I bought JDD’s ingrata…! addio. JDD knows this Sesto is way out of Vitellia’s league, yet that addio isn’t self pitying enough.

Se al volto mai ti senti: an unusual take on this trio. It starts with some beautiful singing from JDD. ACA is -30C cold here. With blistery Arctic winds (looking out for number one = che crudelta! is definitely about seeing her hopes ruined). Most Vitelliae use this very moment to start their slow thawing process thus the fragile (but in spite of everything, real) connection between her and Sesto’s is emphasised. Here, on the other hand, the contrast between JDD’s unearthly beautiful singing and ACA’s cutting tone is very pronounced and drives home Sesto and Vitellia’s deep rift. With so much from them it’s hard to notice the well behaved Publio.

Ah, se grazie si rendano: starts very quickly on the tracks of the previous. It’s taken at a lovely pace. The choir is very reserved and a tad tentative in the high notes. Workman’s Tito doesn’t sound the worse for wear, even rather heroic, which I thought was odd. Tito should feel confusion mixed with uncertain relief here.

Publio/Tito recit: Publio sounds as gloomy as Snell can. Workman seems to have two acting stances: heroic and gentle. Here he uses the heroic one, though it’s not necessary what would fit.

Tardi s’avvede: soft tardi for Snell. Both Tito and Publio sound a bit pompous in the way they take their time enunciating. Said tardi isn’t unpleasant but who is this Publio, really? It feels a bit old fashioned.

After Annio confirms Publio’s words, it’s time for Workman’s gentle/melancholic stance.

Tu fosti tradito: poor Chappuis sounds terrified of these acuti (but what mezzo wouldn’t be?). Still she saves herself with a beautiful inflection on ei degno e di morte.

The peasant has it so much better than me Tito recit: Workman is a lamb of a Tito. He couldn’t in a million years sentence Sesto to death; a workmanlike recit (couldn’t resist!).

Quello di Tito e il volto: JDD sounds gorgeous but terrified this Sesto ain’t. He probably overheard the recit. Tito continues in his gently melancholic way where he should be annoyed. Publio is fairly upset. Mostly both take their cue of beauty of sound from JDD and all end up sounding politely alarmed. That being said, I like this unusually darker sound from JDD. I don’t remember hearing it before or after. Pity. If someone has heard it somewhere else, please point me to it!

Tito : Sesto: Workman needs to acquaint himself with anguish and anger. Judging by his interaction with his traitorous friend you’d think he’s never been annoyed at someone in his life. JDD is allright. La debolezza mia… la mia fatalita is rather glossed over. It must be difficult acting all tense when your “team mate” is gathering nuts in May. They do get a bit more worked up (louder) as things go on.

Deh, per questo intante solo: not sure I like the orchestra’s overly rhythmic take in the tanto affanno soffre un core bit and the extreme speed in the stretto. Though JDD deftly inflects un traditor with remorse I don’t particularly like how her portrayal here balances between a sort of deceived but still loving spouse (think Amastre from Serse) and a brave youth. Once again I feel like, for all her qualities, Sesto eludes her. Also, her ornamentation makes me think of Donizetti; that wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also feel like she likes Donizetti better. The crowd bought it (and not on sale either).

Tito makes up his not so upset mind: Workman’s voice is rather nice when he doesn’t darken it. Also nice(ly menacing) is the piano on (Sesto) mora! Really underwhelming delivery of his clement decision. Someone book him some acting lessons.

Se all’impero: Workman sure has a distinctive tone but there’s something about it that doesn’t work for me. I think he sounds sort of… naive? Then again, there is a case to be made for a naive Tito. He did manage the altro cor challenge but struggled with the affruta from se affruta del timor. Ultimately it was more of a I can make it through this aria than a I’m a clement Tito and don’t you forget it.

Servilia and Annio come in all omg, omg, omg, Vitellia! We beseech you! ACA’s Ma che posso per lui?! sounds like fuck that loser. He’s shopped me to Tito for sure. But then there’s already a glimmer of hope in Annio… non sono Augusta ancor… She seems perplexed in dunque Sesto taciuto… still she’s miles from even being touched let alone loving him. It’s like she’s thinking Him? That moron actually did that? Gotta love ACA, her Vitellia is calculated to the end. Just when I thought Janet Baker and Julia Varady were the coldest Vitelliae.

S’altro che lagrime: vocally what Mologni does isn’t actually bad; rather all over the shop emotionally.

Ecco il punto, Vitellia…/Non piu di fiori: still sub zero. This Vitellia doesn’t understand the first thing about love. Truly an Ecco… carved in marble. She does understand about speranze (addio) though and that’s where the ice cracks. A bit.

No surprise then that Non piu di fiori sounds like Vitellia’s imagining her own – very grand – funeral: a great (marble) hall, large, expensive flowers, a very expressive basset horn, lots of people, open casket, possibly red lipstick and a dramatically arranged dagger across her breast. Now soprano, now mezzo Antonacci unsurprisingly has no problems with the rondo or with the low G. Highly recommended to those who like marmoreal Clemenze.

Act II finale

Nice segue into the finale, very smoothly worked from very grand to very grand – maybe because this Vitellia is so lacking in emotions that privacy and public life seem very similar. The very reserved choir returns. Things aren’t so smooth when the continuo piano plings the intro to Tito’s recit. Then again, his tone matches that piano’s plinginess.

A rather bubbly arpeggio introduces Vitellia. Good idea, the woman is mannered to the bone. ACA has a little hesitation in her voice before she gives herself away but… everybody oohs and ahhs their dei! and stelle! in a similarly overly choreographed and fake tone. Maybe not knowing love from benevolence has been Vitellia’s problem all along. But isn’t that Tito’s problem also? Workman’s Tito stays camp (but earnest) to the end. Weirdly, the camp spreads to the other soloists in the o, generoso! bit. The end is very resolutely driven and well coordinated.

This is worth listening to for its faults as much as for its good moments. There are a number of good ideas that don’t quite come off (Vitellia’s arc, though interesting, falls flat if she’s not really melting by the end). Sesto can’t be built simply on the Act I finale monologue and lots of beautiful singing. There is a lot of logic behind their ever widening rift, though, and as such I think Se al volto mai ti senti is the most memorable moment. Tito as a bit simple is workable (couldn’t resist again…) but then he’s a bit simple… The others don’t have much of a personality here.

  1. I’m not convinced Vitellia should be so unpleasant…