Sheer musicality and voices make Handel’s Alcina glow in a Berkeley concert

United StatesUnited States Handel, Alcina (concert performance): Soloists, The English Concert / Harry Bicket (conductor, harpsichord). Presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California Berkeley, 7.11.2021. (HS)

Karina Gauvin (Alcina)

Alcina – Karina Gauvin
Morgana – Lucy Crowe
Bradamante – Elizabeth DeShong
Ruggiero – Paula Murrihy
Oronte – Alek Shrader
Melisso – Wojtek Gierlach

Among the many advantages of experiencing Handel’s late opera Alcina in concert is that it puts the focus on the glorious music, without gender-bending characters becoming animals and elements of nature on stage, or needing to make sense of a typically convoluted Baroque story.

When the playing and singing are at the jaw-dropping level of The English Concert orchestra under Harry Bicket plus a cast of singers who are utterly at home with the technical and expressive demands of Handel’s music, the results can be sublime. The entire three hours and 40 minutes presented Sunday by Cal Performances in Zellerbach Hall at the University of California Berkeley was immensely satisfying, even transporting.

Start with the 22-piece orchestra, a marvel of accuracy and vivid playing with their convex bows for strings, Baroque-era woodwinds and horns, a theorbo and two harpsichords, one of which was played by Bicket. They provided preludes and dance-music segments that were beguiling and endlessly expressive: suave and lyrical here, bouncy and joyful there, at dramatic moments muscular and gripping.

Bicket and the instrumentalists laid a textbook-clear foundation for the singers. The Baroque pattern of aria after aria, only occasionally broken up with a duet or ensemble, and then mostly at the very end, seldom bogged down, mainly because the singers found distinct voices for their characters. In brief scenes together they also found gestures that were decidedly modern – making faces here, a thumbs-up or fist-pump there, a nasal inflection or a taunting phrase – to sketch out their characters and communicate to a twenty-first-century audience.

That is about all the ‘staging’ there was, other than characters walking on and off, carrying their scores to place on a row of music stands or hold in their hands like choristers. The quality of singing rose above all that, most especially among the four women in key roles.

The English Concert’s performance of Alcina

The hardest-working cast member, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin, lavished an impressive range of dynamics, tone and emotion on six long and arduous arias as the sorceress Alcina, the imperious queen of a magical island who collects lovers and turns them into animals, rocks and waves when she is tired of them. She got the various expressions of love, anger, regret and psychological manipulation without missing a phrase, all with a pliant voice.

English-born soprano Lucy Crowe (who is scheduled as Susanna in the Metropolitan Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro this season) portrayed Alcina’s younger sister, Morgana, as a perpetual teenager playing at love. Her Act II lament, ‘Credete al mio dolore!’, was one of the afternoon’s highlights, her liquid legato interweaving enticingly with Joseph Crouch’s simply stated cello lines in one of Handel’s loveliest arias.

As Ruggiero, the handsome knight who falls under Alcina’s spell, Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy (who sang the role recently at Santa Fe Opera) cut a dashing figure. She delivered the punishing coloratura of ‘Bramo di trionfar’ in Act I with ease, and the lyrical second act arias ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ and ‘Verdi prati’ with sensuous legato (the latter leaving some of us wishing for repeats).

American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, oft-heard at the Metropolitan Opera in Puccini, dived into Handel’s vocal gymnastics with accuracy and abandon for Bradamante, Ruggiero’s fiancée who lands unexpected on the island, clad as a knight. A torrent of high-speed coloratura fazed her not a bit in the thrilling ‘Vorrei vendicarmi’, expressing her frustration and fury that Ruggiero won’t believe she is who she says she is. The aria’s frenzied violin solo, masterfully executed by principal Nadja Zwiener, completed another highlight moment.

Handel wrote these roles, of course, for castrati, men physically altered to sing in the soprano and mezzo-soprano range. The gender confusion gets multiplied when Ruggiero is a woman playing a man and Bradamante is a woman playing a woman mistaken for a man. (The singers wore pants suits for these roles, evening gowns for the sorceresses.)

The two actual male roles in the cast portray characters that don’t go through quite the range of emotions that these women do, but American tenor Alek Shrader contributed sleek singing to Oronte. He is trapped on the island in love with the fickle Morgana, so he’s mostly just frustrated, as in his Act I ‘Semplicetto a donna credi’. As Melisso, Bradamante’s traveling mentor, Polish bass Wojtek Gierlach contributed some deft phrases in his even more-limited assignment.

Bicket struck a low profile, conducting orchestral entrances and endings from the harpsichord with his back to the audience. The musicians and singers didn’t miss a beat.

Harvey Steiman

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