Saturday night was the opening of the WNO's new production of Alcina and we were treated to some of the best baroque singing here in DC in ages. I have always been a Handelian as back in the 1980's when I first moved here Maestro Steven Simon offered up three full concert performances each year with his Handel Festival. Alas, while those days when Troyanos and Anderson sang the leads in Giulio Cesare on Handel's 300th birthday are now gone, Saturday night offered up some superb voices in roles that many of them are new to and truly excelled. We also had the pleasure of the intimate Eisenhower Theater where Maestra Jane Glover was so close to the singers, I truly felt she was in the opera!
Conductor: Jane Glover
Set Designer: Neil Patel
Costume Designer:James Schuette
Lighting Designer:Christopher Akerlind
The set was basic and while interesting with a large circular raised platform at the center with a mirrored pedestal and a large similar sized circle cut through the rear wall at the center, it needed something more, especially when it came to the lighting. There were 20 white small cubed seats which were cool and often lit up from within. The chorus and dancers entered all in different black costumes and took seats; they were Alcina's captives in trances and often with glazed looks and immobile.
Bradamante (disguised as Ricciardo) in a camouflage jump suit enters with Melisso, in a long gray woolen overcoat, in the dark with flashlights. Melisso's costume seemed somewhat Victorian, while Bradamante oozed modernity. It was not really any time period though. Morgana in a frilly pink flowing frock and silver sandals met them. Ms. Fang's opening aria gave us the most amazing and delicate of sopranos (she has excelled at the Met and also was an awesome Cleopatra at Wolf Trap several years back!). She twisted her silk ribbon belt as if to seduce Bradamante. Her repeat had gorgeous embellishments and ended with a flash of light as Bradamante froze. Her lover, Oronte, was listening in and Mr. tester was in modern tan military suit with lots of medals and shoulder stripes as well as cap; he looked the supreme general.
Thunder sounded and Alcina entered through the rear in a silken red negligee/gown and robe with train as a white globe lowered from above (I took this to be her orb of magic powers). She was joined by Ruggiero in yellow brocade robe over yellow silk pajamas.
Four dancers often accompanied Alcina and Mr. O'Hanlon had their bodies being tugged by a non-present force as they moved around powerless to Alcina's magic. "Di te mi rido, semplice stolto," the Queen's opening aria, had me thinking that Ms. Meade was indeed born to sing this style, even though she has apparently not done it since her school days! Handel suits her so deliciously as she curled the coloratura around melting us all; no wonder Ruggiero was under her spell! During all this, the chorus is in a motionless trance on the surrounding cubes and ultimately leaves when Alcina does.
Ms. DeShong's Ruggiero offered up superb mezzo coloratura as well with truly excellent low notes that only come from a few contralto-type singers these days.
Ms. Mack's "E gelosia..." was sung as Morgana keeps trying to caress "him," and this part of the seduction was truly believable, as was Oronte's anger as his betrothed "fooled around" with another "guy." Oronte's aria of rage gave Mr. Tester a great chance to show off his excellent Rossini training, especially in the repeat.
Alcina bears her soul (or is it her wiles) "Si son quella..." as Ruggiero come to her like a puppy dog and Bradamante stares on.
Bradamante agrees to love Morgana, so Alcina won't kill "him" thinking he wants to replace Ruggiero. and we are treated to the spellbinding aria that usually ends Act I. Ms. Fang was a clarion clear and spot on soprano with "Tornami a vagheggiar..." and her gorgeous B section, "Cara mio speme" had floated notes I thought did not exist.
the act did not end here as this opera was broken into two (not three) acts. At this point, I will take a short break to discuss the lighting which actually was a mottled-like moray that sometimes extended into the sides of the house and the proscenium. There was some kind of mottled ramp at the rear that we could never quite discern. Was it a cobblestone walk, a mountainside, a pattern? I really wanted some more magic with the lighting and it just never came to that.
Melisso gives the ring to Ruggiero so he can avoid Alcina's spell and gets a chance to sing a little with "Pensa a chi geme d'amor piagata..." but sadly this opera doesn't give the one low (baritone) voice much of a chance to shine; I wanted more for Mr. Adams!
With Ruggiero now free, he is forgiven by Bradamante and the two ladies had fun with a full on kiss. However, Ruggiero then thinks that this is another spell to which Bradamante responds with the infuriating "Vorrei vendicarmi" sung at the most scary of fast paces. Ruggiero tries to run off, but Melisso brings him back and during the B section, Bradamante pulls a gun on herself as if to have Ruggiero shoot her in despair.
Alcina returns (with her floating ball) and dancers and Morgana interrupts her as the queen is about to destroy Bradamante thinking "him" a threat. Morgana's "Ama sospira" is performed with a violist on stage in a gorgeous black gown which and the dancers, which at first I thought odd, but it somehow worked.
Alcina's ensuing "Ah! mio cor!" had the queen upset after Oronte revealed Ruggiero's plan to escape. The B section was faster with the chorus moving the cubes around and then the repeat of the gut wrenching aria was super for Ms. Mead'es dramatic soprano voice in such an intimate space; we were all blown away. This was where the production team chose to break the performance, and it was indeed quite perfect.
At intermission, one lady was ranting about how horrible the opera was. I asked if she liked Handel and she said, "yes, but not this." I'm not sure what she meant and the she said she saw Cesare once (largely cut) and it was ok. This opera was basically 90 minutes and then about 60, with the whole show running just under 3 hours with an intermission; hardly an endurance test. Some seats were empty for the second half, but I must applaud the WNO team for doing this kind of work.
The second half began with a short sinfonia leading into Oronte's "E un folle, et un vile affetto." where Mr. tester got to really show off his coloratura. Morgana is being fawned on by the dancers as her "ex" taunts her.
Ruggiero & Bradamante both enter in matching camouflage fatigues and we are treated to the luscious "Verdi prati" sung with such amazing restraint, with Ms. DeShong go so super pianissimo in the second verse. It was a moment we all remembered all evening and to this moment.
Alcina re-enters with no ball, which I did not get, as she has not yet lost her powers, for "Ombre pallide" with a super dramatic recitative and the chorus surrounding her surrounding her looking even more soporific and dazed. Drama in the voice is a very important part of the opera and while Ms. Meade gave us that, it was in her stage presence that we only felt "royal queen," and U just wanted a bit more of real love and real frustration, or maybe this was done on purpose, to make Alcina totally unfeeling?
Morgana comes begging to Oronte "Credete al mio dolore..." that she suffers and repents; Ms. Fang can do it all! Mr. Tester responds with "Un momento di contento," and Alcina confronts Ruggiero with her plea, "Ma quando tornerai..."
Ruggiero responds with "sta nell'Ircana..." telling the queen she is out of luck and Bradamante continues their winning run with "All'alma fedel" putting Alcina into even more of the dumps with "Mi restano le lagrime..." as the chorus returns again to their removed positions.
The circle at the rear now has a dark panel across the bottom half of it; this was the only "set change" all night save for cube movement, and again, I wanted something more that meant something I could understand.
Bradamante re-enters in a gorgeous white off the shoulder Grecian gown for the trio "Non e amore ne gelosia," the only time when more than one soloist sings all night. The B section was a spectacular blending moment for the two mezzos. This is where Ruggerio is supposed to destroy Alcina's orb/urn/power source and he pulls his gun motioning towards the white orb (it came back with Alcina the last time). Thunder roars and the ball lifts away with no gunshot. Oh, how I wanted Ruggiero to shoot that orb into smithereens!!
The rear wall rises and a kind of plastic wrap drop appears in front of the actual rear stage wall that is now bare. I didn't really feel like this was the return to reality that I wanted, but the chorus slowly awoke as Alcina fell in front of them at the edge of the disc. The choral ending had a small dance of joy as Morgana sat on a cube near the front seeming a bit unhappy (was she upset her sister lost her power, or she was back with a guy she didn't like or?). The lovers were at the front left and Melisso stood tall on one of the cubes overlooking as if he did his job well.
I think overall this production won due to the impeccable singing from the soloists and acting/singing from the chorus/dancers as well. The drama is in the voice, and that was clear, the visuals needed a bit more for me especially from the lighting and that white orb!
ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
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