Impenetrable Alcina

FranceFrance Georg Friedrich Haendel: Alcina. Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, Choeur de l’Opera National de Bordeaux, Harry Bicket (conductor), Grand Théâtre, Bordeaux, 13.5.2012 (JMI)

New Production

Direction: David Alden
Sets and Costumes: Gideon Davey
Lighting: Simon Mills


Alcina: Elza Van Den Heever
Ruggiero: Isabel Leonard
Bradamante: Sonia Prina
Morgana: Anna Ryan
Oronte: Alek Shrader
Oberto: Melody Louledjian
Melisso: Wojtek Gierlach

Handel's Alcina Photo courtesy Bordeaux Opera, © Frédéric Desmesure

Conveniently both the Bordeaux and Toulouse opera houses have programmed two important baroque operas at the same time. A week ago I went to Toulouse where I was absolutely delighted with Les Indes Galantes (S&H review here). Perhaps those Indians raised my expectations for this Alcinain Bordeaux, with the result that I felt a little let down.

Canadian stage director David Alden was in charge of this new production. He is a very imaginative director and the type that can really excel in Baroque operas. But when you have to search the program notes – despite the super-titles – to get any idea what is going on stage, then something went wrong. Either the concept of David Alden wasn’t well developed on stage, or it has nothing discernible to do with the libretto. Anyone who didn’t know the opera in advance or couldn’t follow the French translation, was not going to understand the plot of Alcina on this occasion.

In the program notes David Alden explains that his idea was inspired by Woody Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo, where the protagonist, Mia Farrow, escapes from the routine of her personal life by going to see the same movie every day, to the point where the actors leave the screen and speak to her. David Alden follows Allen’s path and sends Ruggiero, bored of his marriage to Bradamante, to the theater every day, where he daydreams and sees Alcina, a magic character he imagines to be a singer. Working in the same theater are Morgana and Oronte as ushers – singing ushers that is. Bradamante and Melisso arrive at the theater, trying to save Ruggiero from his mental distress.

After the first act in the theater, the second act takes place in a laboratory or maybe a museum of natural history. In the third act Ruggiero wants to break with his dream-Alcina and returns to normal life. I assure you that I would not have gleaned any of that without assiduously studying the program notes. Whether this is my fault or Mr.Alden’s… well.

If you ignore the fact that you don’t know what is going on, it can’t be denied that how it is going on is very good. David Alden is an inveterate stage director and knows exactly how to get great performances out of his singers-actors-dancers. And it never gets boring, either, because there is always something happening on stage. Emphasis on “something”.

available at Amazon
G.F.Handel, Alcina,
M.Minkowski / Les Musiciens du Louvre
Harteros, Kasarova et al.
Arthaus Musik

available at Amazon
G.F.Handel, Alcina,
W.Christie / Les Arts Florissants
Fleming, Graham, Dessay et al.

Harry Bicket conducted as effectively as usual. He is a true baroque music specialist, although I have always missed in his conducting that something little extra that makes the difference between a good maestro and a great one. It wasn’t long, before I started missing Christoph Rousset. Not only for his Rameau-performance a week earlier in Toulouse, but also for the wonderful Alcina he offered in Bilbao nine years ago. The Bordeaux orchestra played well, including the musicians who took their instruments on stage to play along to the arias right from amidst the action.

South African soprano Elza van den Heever played Alcina. She is an important soprano of our times, a lyric-spinto, and she has a great future ahead of her. This type of voice usually isn’t well suited to the demands of baroque music (Anja Harteros excepted). But Elza van den Heever was an exciting Alcina, more powerful than moving, and at her best in the more dramatic moments.

Mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard was a remarkable Ruggiero, even as she sang through a cold. She continuously gained confidence as the opera went on and did her best work in the last two acts. She was splendid in both “Verdi prati” and the well-known bravura aria “Sta nell’ircana”.

Sonia Prina delighted as Bradamante in vocal terms; less so as an actress. Her contralto voice is very well suited to the tessitura of the score, and she shone brightly in the aria “Vorrei vendicarmi”.

Morgana has a couple of very neat passages, almost like a proto-Liu or Micaela. “Tornami a vagheggiar” is possibly the most famous aria of the entire opera and it gives the interpreter an opportunity to show off – especially when presented, as here, as a music-hall number. Soprano Anna Ryan made the most of it, because she is an excellent actress and even a good dancer. It made one overlook her less than convincing voice with a rather acidy top register.

Alek Shrader was a tasteful, well-acting Oronte with an unappealing voice. Young light soprano Melody Louledjian left a positive impression as Oberto, aided by youth and good looks. Handel wrote only one aria for Melisso. With a voice like Wojtech Gierlach’s that was plenty.

José Mª Irurzun