Alcina: Witch, Shrew and Termagant, But Most of All, a Diva

United StatesUnited States Handel, Alcina: The English Concert, Harry Bicket (Artistic Director and Conductor), Isaac Stern Auditorium / Ronald O. Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall, New York , 26.11.2014 (SSM)

Bradamante……. Christine Rice
Melisso …………. Wojtek Gierlach
Morgana………… Anna Christy
Alcina……………. Joyce DiDonato
Oberto…………… Anna Devin
Ruggiero ……….. Alice Coote


One could feel the excitement and sense the audience’s anticipation well before this sold-out concert began. This was the final performance in a tour that took the cast and production staff from an opening in London on October 10 to venues in Spain, Austria, France and finally New York on October 26. I can only credit word-of-mouth for this awareness or, more accurately, “word of Web.” Positive online reviews of concerts on tour quickly spread the news these days.

My thoughts were twofold. Either the singers would be exhausted (this was the last stop on their tour), or the opposite: at their best, having now performed the work many times. I would say that they came pretty close to perfection here—or as close as a concert version of an opera can be. It would appear that staged operas produced outside of the Met will continue to be semi-staged or concert versions with minimal space in which to sing and interact— at least until money for the arts from public and private sectors starts to flow again. The performers here were not in costume, except for Joyce DiDonato who wore a Cruella De Vil-style gown. The vocalists did the smart thing, singing and acting as if they were in a fully staged production. Singers exiting a scene would move to a near or distant chair depending on the demands of the libretto. Eye contact between members of the cast gave the audience some sense of connection between characters. For example, near the beginning of the opera when Bradamante/Ricciardo expresses bafflement at Morgana’s coup de coeur, she rolls his/her eyes as if to say, “Give me a break. You can’t have fallen in love with me. We just met!”

It would serve little purpose to summarize the plot line. Here, as in many Baroque operas, the libretti are simply excuses to give the composer an opportunity to write music that is appropriate to the emotions expressed in the text.  A large number of Handel’s libretti are no more than templates: women dressed as men or vice versa (Alcina, Admeto, Xerxes, Floridante), done to test the fidelity of their affianced or as a means of discovering a truth that could not be revealed otherwise until the end. Other templates are framed on the false assumption that a character is dead but is later revealed to be alive (Agrippina, Ariodante).  Alcina succeeds here not so much for the words or the drama, but for the inspired music of Handel and the consistently high quality of both the orchestral and vocal parts. While there were some weaknesses, the overall excellence of the ensemble overrode any small complaints.

When one of the vocalists stands out so clearly from the rest of the cast, it becomes somewhat of a difficult balancing act to give a fair reading of the other soloists. This was noticeable, for example, when DiDonato’ s pitch-perfect voice, fully at ease, traverses the difficult aria in Act III, Ma quando tonerai.  Each note was clear and sharp yet had enough volume to be carried to the back of the hall. The wonderful Sta nell’Ircana, (certainly a happy aria for the two horn players who were finally given their chance to join the orchestra in the only music they were to play that evening) was beautifully sung by Alice Coote.  Under other circumstances this aria would have knocked the socks off the audience members given Coote’s  virtuosity. Yet this was tempered by the fact that it paled in comparison to DiDonato’s previous aria.

The other sopranos and mezzos varied in vocal quality with Anna Devin as Oberto the surprise of the evening. Her voice was  better suited  than the other vocalists in a performance where the orchestra played in an historically informed style.  The combination of a sparing use of vibrato and a naturally beautiful voice produced a pure and youthful sound not heard elsewhere on stage. On the other end of the spectrum, Ben Johnson as Oronte had a more traditional operatic voice, one that did not seem quite right for this production.

In some earlier reviews of Harry Bicket and his ensemble, I had cause to comment on a coolness that marred his orchestral playing. This came through less here because his orchestra was, as it should be, secondary to the vocalists. Although there seemed to be an improvement in the orchestra’s enthusiasm in the second and third acts, Bicket tended to fall into a groove that flattened out the differences between arias, mostly due to his tendency to standardize the tempi. The waning of variety made the final half  of the performance a little tiresome. While with Handel you can never have enough of a good thing, too many arias taken at similar tempi can make them sound the same.

The audience was as pleased with the singing as any I can remember since the demise of the New York City Opera. There, too, in their many landmark revivals of Baroque operas, cheering was almost mandatory at the end of all but the most minor arias. The performance here, scheduled to run about 2 1/2 to 3 hours ran almost a half hour longer due to the shouting and cheering of the audience.  It was well deserved.

Stan Metzger

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