Pittsburgh Opera’s Alcina is a delight for both ear and eye

United StatesUnited States Handel, Alcina: Soloists, Chatham Baroque, Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra / Antony Walker (conductor), Pittsburgh Opera, CAPA Theater, Pittsburgh, 28.1.2020. (RP)

Caitlin Gotimer (Alcina) and Laurel Semerdjian (Bradamante)
© David Bachman/Pittsburgh Opera

Director – Matthew Haney
Sets – Sarah Delaney Boyle
Costumes – Jason Bray
Lighting – Nate Wheatley
Wigs – Nicole Pagano

Alcina – Caitlin Gotimer
Ruggiero – Antonia Botti-Lodovico
Bradamante – Laurel Semerdjian
Morgana – Natasha Wilson
Oronte – Angel Romero
Melisso – Tyler Zimmerman
Attendant – Yazid Gray

For convoluted plots, complete with star-crossed lovers, witchcraft and deceit, Handel’s Alcina has few peers in the realm of opera. Pittsburgh Opera has managed to make sense of it all in a visually attractive production with a young and engaging cast, all of whom are present or past members of its resident artist program. Judicious pruning (the 2019 Salzburg production ran nearly twice as long) reduced the opera to a digestible length, with its three acts condensed to two parts. There was still, however, a bounty of glorious arias with beguiling melodies and some especially beautiful sounds from the pit to savor.

The story of Alcina, a sorceress who wields a dagger instead of a wand, is drawn from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. Penned in the first half of the sixteenth century, the epic tale relates the exploits of Christian knights defending Europe from a Saracen invasion. The poem was the source of inspiration for many composers, and Handel mined it for two other operas, Orlando and Ariodante, in addition to Alcina.

The opera is set on an enchanted island, where Alcina’s beauty and magical powers have enabled her to seduce scores of men, whose fate is to be turned into trees, rocks, animals or anything else that suits her fancy when she tires of them. Ruggiero has fallen prey to Alcina’s charms and Bradamante, disguised as her brother Ricciardo, comes to the island to rescue him. Morgana, Alcina’s sister, enters the romantic fray, ultimately warning Ricciardo that he is about to be turned into a wild beast. To cut to the chase, Ruggiero and Bradamante are united, the bewitched men are returned to human form, and Alcina is left on her island, bereft of her magical powers.

Sarah Delaney Boyle created a set that summoned the splendors associated with Baroque opera. Massive gold towers and a sweeping garland made from the armor and weapons of the knights who had fallen for Alcina’s charms dominated the stage, while an orb suspended from above was the source of her magical powers. Gilded hands grasped the edges of the raised platform that delineated the sorceress’s realm, evoking the desperation of the ensnared men as they attempted to escape the fate to which Alcina had consigned them. Red and blue lighting effects added an aura of the surreal to the prevailing atmosphere of desperation.

Caitlin Gotimer as Alcina triumphed, capturing the myriad emotions of the sorceress in a performance that was as vivid dramatically as it was vocally. Apart from a few high notes that were off the mark, she sang Handel’s vocal lines with sensitive phrasing and tasteful ornamentation. Equally winning, and perhaps just a little more delicious in her pert, enchanting characterization of Morgana, was soprano Natasha Wilson. The sparkle in her voice and eyes made Morgana more vixen than temptress, and every moment she was on stage was a pleasure.

There was scant coherency in Jason Bray’s costume concept, but surely his outfit for Bradamante was inspired by the famous photo of the great dramatic soprano Zinka Milanov as Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino. Even if that were not the case, mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian looked dashing in her dark blue hat with its sweeping white plume. As with others in the cast, Semerdjian’s voice was not a perfect match for the role. Her coloratura was often labored, but in the legato passages she revealed a plush voice of great spaciousness and beauty.

There was little to fault in mezzo-soprano Antonia Botti-Lodovico’s passionate portrayal of Ruggiero, except that she was miscast. Her essentially lyrical voice was never meant for the demands of so dramatic a role. The illuminated headpiece she wore likewise did her no favors. That she nonetheless made a considerable impact as Ruggiero was evidence of her artistry and commitment to the role.

As Oronte, tenor Angel Romero was encumbered with a ridiculous head piece crowned with a massive set of antlers. It was as if he had been transported to the island direct from Windsor Forest on Midsummer’s Eve. Romero’s lyrical voice lacked the heft for Oronte’s more heroic outbursts, but its beauty was fully displayed when he sang ruefully of his love for Morgana and her power over him. The role of Melisso was cut to that of a messenger and observer, but bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman nonetheless delivered his lines with a solid voice and a forthright manner.

Antony Walker, the company’s music director, led a brisk, exciting performance by an ensemble drawn from the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra augmented by Chatham Baroque, a trio made up of Andrew Fouts (violin), Patricia Halverson (viola da gamba) and Scott Pauley (theorbo). In addition to performing as a trio, Chatham Baroque regularly collaborates with guest instrumentalists and vocalists in historically informed concerts of early music

Fouts served as concert master, providing bite and flourish to the ensemble with his incisive bowing, while Halverson and Pauley, joined by Mark Trawka on the harpsichord, provided the continuo. The trio of continuo players provided color, texture and depth to the musical fabric, especially Trawka’s judicious use of the lute stop on the harpsichord. Chief among the musical delights were the dulcet tones of the recorders and the excellent horn playing in the second part.

Rick Perdian

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