Opera: Opera Vivente’s Alcina

1 11 2007

This is going to be a quick review, both because it’s been four days since I’ve seen the opera and a lot has happened since then, and because I really didn’t know what much to say. Opera Vivente (OV for short) is Baltimore’s opera company, and I had a chance to see their version of Handel‘s Alcina on Sunday. OV’s tag line is “intimate, innovative, in English”, and it was certainly intimate (there were about 150 of us crammed into a tiny church hall).

First – the problem with Handel is that it is Handel. That means where two acts would suffice, there were three; where a solid plotline would have been useful in composing the music, there is none. So OV was struggling uphill even before the work was translated. In translation, thus, Handel was even harder to comprehend than it would have been in the original Italian. It took me quite some time to understand the story, even with the synopsis. The plot is thus (to the best of my understanding): Alcina is in love with Ruggiero and has convinced him to love her as well, forcing him to leave behind his lover Bradamante (seriously, Bradamante?) Bradamante (disguised as her own brother Ricciardo) and Ruggiero’s mentor, Melisso, arrive on Alcina’s island to rescue Ruggiero. Upon their arrival, Morgana is enchanted by Ricciardo and spurns her lover on the island, Oronte. There’s also the requisite little orphan boy whose father has been captured and transformed by Alcina. Somehow this is all connected, but it all ends well, of course.

The immediate problem I had with OV’s production was with Melisso (played by Christopher Austin) and Bradamante (Monica Reinagel) overacting on stage. Quite often, there would be brilliant singing on one side of the stage, but you’d be distracted by the bizarre and broad hand and arm gestures by Melisso. This was apparent most of all when Morgana (Ah Hong) was on stage as the sultry seductress – in an effective understated manner, she would soothe Melisso, snuggle up to Bradamante and spurn Oronte (Zachary Stains), somehow acting her part without flailing uselessly around. For all the points that OV gets for doing such an ambitious and massive opera on a shoestring budget, it gets docked heavily for the seemingly random body movement that only detracted from the onstage singing. It hurt to see the jerky, sharp movements that Melisso and others made like some sort of possessed puppet or marionette. Meanwhile, Alcina (Colleen Daly), felt cramped on the stage, facing her altar at the back, yet unable to express disappointment or anger through movement, because she was at the back of the stage, where quarters were tight.

The second obvious problem with the staging was the costumes. The majority of the seduced islanders and Alcina herself wore obviously hippie-era inspired clothes, Melisso and Bradamante wore sharp and snazzy coast guard outfits. Had it been left at that, there wouldn’t have been much for me to complain. Melisso and Bradamante were supposed to look out of place and they did so with aplomb. And had that been that, I wouldn’t have complained – but for Bradamante’s abrupt costume change into what could best be described as something out of the dear departed Queen Mother’s old rejected wear. I spent quite a while trying to understand the timing or the costume itself, but failed miserably, and decided that there was some reason for it – but not one that I could fathom. Similarly, Alcina’s outfit at the beginning – loose baggy clothes in the style of Prince of Persia or a Persian Maharahni of yore – would have been effective throughout, thus confusing me throughly when she appeared during the second half of the play, wearing an unflattering coat in the bright bands punctuated by wide white stripes that is a favourite of Ikea bathrobes. The lighting and staging were in other respects very well done, though I believe there was a slight problem with the lights at the start of the third act.

And now, a word about the casting. Since I’ve already used one House of Windsor analogy, another is in order: Elspeth Franks as Ruggiero and Monica Reinagel as Bradamante had all the charm of Charles and Diana, minus the fairytale wedding. Stockier and shorter than Monica, Elspeth had difficulty filling the role of the protective and powerful soldier that Ruggiero should have been. Meanwhile, Monica towered almost comically above her protector in arias both tender and threatening. This was not, I should emphasize, the fault of either Monica or Elspeth – it was the combination that was both startling and implausible. Thus, blame the casting director, not the singers. After the story started making sense (about the middle of the second act), the combination became ridiculous and I was forced to stifle my giggles during duets.

Finally the music and singing:

  • The orchestra played with a mix of period and modern instruments and I found them to be quite competent with one exception: the strings. The problem seemed to be that toward the end of each act, the string instruments rapidly deteriorated in tune. Much of the two breaks was spent tuning, which led to less than spectacular playing towards the end by what must have been a very tired orchestra. It should have been tighter, and better rehearsed, but sadly, the awful string performance overwhelmed the other instruments.
  • I was bowled away by the enunciation and clarity of Ah Hong all the while she seduced on stage.
  • I beamed with pleasure as Christopher Austin’s overpowering bass shook the floor in precise notes, but sometimes Handel demanded far more dexterity than Austin was able to do.
  • I had to stop myself from clapping while young maestro Matthew Spears-Heinel projected more clearly than many of his stage-mates.
  • I was impressed by many individual arias that Elspeth Franks sang, but was left wondering what he was saying in most of the others.
  • I can’t say I was either entirely blown away by Monica Reinagel’s performance, but it was competent throughout, if lacking projection.
  • I couldn’t make out most of Zachary Steins’ singing, mainly because of the lack of projection.
  • I was in despair over Colleen Daly’s quavering gulps that seem to have be inspired by Renee Phlegming Fleming – I made out a word in every 15 or 20.

I think OV is on to a good thing – performing in the vernacular was helpful, particularly when the oh-so-delightful Ah Hong or massive Christopher Austin were on stage. Matthew Spears-Heinel, too, has a long and successful career ahead of him. Given the budget and space, OV put together a good show. I can’t recommend that you drive all the way up to Baltimore to see it, but if you’re already there, and can navigate the bizarre roads in that area, then there are worse ways to spend $25 and an afternoon.

Another review is over on Ionarts (hi Michael!) and there’s likely to be a review here too in a bit.
PS – the bums running the parking lot behind the church will likely try to make you pay twice. Caveat parker.


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2 responses to “Opera: Opera Vivente’s Alcina”

2 11 2007
TCN (17:35:52) :

Thanks for the review. I would want to urge you to reconsider the “problem with Handel is Handel”. This is absoluely not true. When this music performed well and staged creatively there is less chance of boredom than one would ever experience with some Wagner or Verdi. The trick is just people trying to treat the repertoire the same as the would later pieces. None-the-less, Handel was a profound operatic genius and in most of his works, Alcina is certianly one along with Cesare, Radimisto, Rodelina, Ariodante, Orlando, Rinaldo, etc, there is absolutely no problem inherent in the work, and especially not one that could be traced back to Handel. Those that there is a weakness with Handel should just spend more time with GOOD recordings and watching high quality productions by directors that understand the genre.

3 11 2007
varun (09:49:58) :

Hi TCN,

I don’t disagree with you that when Handel is done right, it’s more powerful than Wagner or Verdi. He was indeed a profound operatic genius and after hearing modern opera (those written after 1900), I am left impressed by the beauty and elegance of the earlier pieces.

That said, I have been spoilt by Mozart – plausible plotlines, fantastic music and care for the way that words and music should match. One of the best ways to hear this is to listen to Handel’s M-word and compare it to Mozart’s Requiem (at least, the first part, which Mozart himself wrote). There’s such care in how it should be sung, and such incredible care given to writing the words so that the melody stays in sync with the words, that I am blown away. I never had that feeling with Messiah, no matter how many versions I’ve heard (I think 9-10 live, and a dozen or so CD recordings), because Handel’s music sometimes loses track of the words and players end up straining to meet the demands of the music. Plus, my complaint with Alcina in particular was that the plotline was very loose, making it difficult to understand what was happening, and that is not the fault of the opera company, but because Handel didn’t write a tight story.

Cheers,
-Varun.

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