United Kingdom George Frederic Handel, Alcina (opera in three acts, 1735): Semi-staged concert performance, with piano accompaniment, of extracts from the opera given by recent alumni of the RNCM. Concert Hall, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. 23rd February 2016 (RF)
Alcina, an enchantress: Bryony Williams (soprano)
Morgana, her sister: Joanna Norman (soprano)
Ruggiero, held captive under Alcina’s power: Heather Lowe (mezzo)
Bradamante, Ruggiero’s betrothed, disguised as a man: Elizabeth Humphries
Melisso, her guardian: Benjamin Lewis (baritone)
Oronte, commander of Alcina’s guard: Chase Henry Hopkins (tenor)
Piano accompanist: Harvey Davies
Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai (Alcina)
Di te mi rido, Semplice Stolto (Ruggiero)
O s’apre al riso (Morgana)
È gelosia, forza è d’amore (Bradamante)
Semplicetto! A Donna Credi? (Oronte)
Tornami a vagheggiar (Morgana)
Qual portento (Ruggiero)
Pensa a chi geme (Melisso)
Mi lusinga il dolce affetto (Ruggiero)
Ah! mio cor (Alcina)
È un folle è un vile affetto (Oronte)
Credete al mio dolore (Morgana)
Un momento di contento (Oronte)
Ma quando tornerai (Alcina)
Sta nell’Ircana (Ruggiero)
All’alma Fedel (Bradamante)
Non è amor, né gelosia Alcina, (Ruggiero and Bradamante)
Handel’s seasons of opera in London in the early 1700s, based at the Haymarket Theatre, were very successful. However, when the lease expired the theatre was taken over by a rival company under the patronage of the Prince of Wales. Handel joined up with John Rich, a producer of extravagant entertainment, at the newly built theatre in Covent Garden which had a full company of singers, a chorus and dancers along with elaborate stage machinery. The soloists included the castrato Cerestini whose rival at the Haymarket was none other than the great Farinelli. The rivalry between the two fostered fierce allegiances as well as inflated salaries, akin to the present day with footballers Ronaldo and Messi perhaps!!
In that first season John Rich put on two new opera productions based on Ariosta’s epic poem Orlando Furioso and which included Handel’s Alcina. As with opera of that period vocal display is all, make it more like a vocal gymnastic competition than a musically dramatic experience. It took Rossini and the belcantist composers Bellini and Donizetti to bring more drama and meaningful dramatic singing and situations to the fore in place of Handel’s concentration on vocal display. That being said the audience of the day was greatly appreciative of the fare on offer.
The conjunction of this performance of extracts from Alcina and the RNCM’s forthcoming full staging, in the opera theatre of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, took my mind back to 1989. That year the RNCM staged Alcina to further showcase the soprano Amanda Roocroft whose performance of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte in the College’s production the previous year had produced waves of appreciation from many critics. Both works are excellent vehicles for young singers to show their mettle and it is an interesting variant to present this singer’s opera in a manner that allows the audience of loyal supporters to hear some recent notable alumni once more. Although I missed the presence of the usual surtitles to follow the complexities of the plot, I found the verbal linking of the extracts and the programme notes adequate.
One distinction of presenting opera in this format is the absolute necessity of the participants being good actors. This was certainly the case here. Of particular note in this respect, and outstanding vocally was Heather Low, a recent graduate of the National Opera Studio and RNCM, singing the travesty role of Ruggiero. Her ease and fluency of physical movement was matched by her wide variety of vocal nuance and expression. She ran up the aisle stairs like an athlete, which is much what opera singers are required to do these days. She has already made professional debuts with all the British regional companies and I shall watch her professional progress with interest.
Rather confusedly Ruggiero’s lover, Bradamante, was, as required by the plot, dressed as a man and albeit her appearance was not helped by the fact of all the supposed males being dressed in trousers. Canadian Eliabeth Humphries who has made a mark in oratorio took the role. She made what she could of limited opportunities. As Melisso, Bradamante’s guardian, the magnificently hirsute baritone Benjamin Lewis made a strong impact vocally singing with significant sonority. A winner of the 2014 Frederic Cox Award and the 2015 Elisabeth Harwood Award, both at the RNCM, he can enter the professional ranks with confidence.
Also notable for her appealing stage presence and acting was Australian Joanna Norman. These qualities were matched by an evenness and fluency of tone in her singing, enabling her to make a worthy impact every time she participated in the unfolding drama. Her lover, Oronte, sung by Chase Henry Hopkins also enjoys a positive stage presence assisted by his stature, although I wondered if his powerful tenor had yet fully settled.
Anglo-New Zealander Bryony Williams sang the eponymous role. She won several major prizes whilst at the RNCM including the double of the Cox Award and Kennedy Award for the singing of Richard Strauss in 2013 and followed by singing Adina in the College’s admired production of L’Elisir d’Amore (see review). Her pure lyric voice, with its extended top, suited the title role well. Her voice has not yet filled out in the middle and she will need that to further her career I suspect. As it was, her acting and appealing stage presence was sympathetic and contributed significantly to the overall performance.
Pianist Harvey Davies achieved the music side of the evening with the kind of sympathetic professionalism that is the hallmark of accompanist at the RNCM. Added to that he gave the oral descriptions of the stage proceedings, which are quite complicated at times!
Robert J Farr