Seattle Opera makes a rare foray into Baroque opera with Handel’s Alcina

United StatesUnited States Handel, Alcina: Soloists, Seattle Symphony / Christine Brandes (conductor). Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall, Seattle, 15.10.2023. (ZC)

Vanessa Goikoetxea (Alcina), Randall Scotting (Ruggiero) and Ginger Costa-Jackson (Bradamante) © Sunny Martini

Director – Tim Albery
Sets and Costumes – Hannah Clark
Lighting – Matthew Richardson
Video – Ian William Galloway

Alcina – Vanessa Goikoetxea
Morgana – Sharleen Joynt
Ruggiero – Randall Scotting
Bradamante – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Oronte – John Marzano
Melissa – Nina Yoshida Nelson

Following a successful run of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (review here) in August, Seattle Opera is back with Handel’s Alcina. From its premiere at Covent Garden in 1735, Alcina was one of Handel’s most successful operas, with a record eighteen subsequent performances. But the early success was not enough to keep it on stage, and performances were scarce until it emerged in the 1950s as a vehicle for soprano Joan Sutherland. This marks the first time the Seattle Opera has staged Alcina, and despite the Emerald City’s vibrant early-music community, the arrival also marks one of only a handful of times the company has attempted an opera by a Baroque master.

Along with Ariodante and Orlando, Alcina is based on Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso. Stocked with magical elements, chivalry and raw emotion, the poem is ideal source material for Baroque opera. Alcina begins with Melissa and Bradamante (disguised as her brother, Ricciardo) arriving on Alcina’s enchanted island looking for Ruggiero, Bradamante’s lover, who has gone missing. Ruggiero appears soon enough, bewitched by one of Alcina’s spells. From this point forward, the six principal characters weave their numerous plights together through multiple da capo arias and vocal acrobatics. Ruggiero is eventually freed from Alcina’s spell and returns to Bradamante – and, in the end, Alcina accepts the loss of Ruggiero as her powers fade.

In the realm of opera, the allure of realism often veils comprehension rather than illuminating it. Many operas require a degree of willing suspension of disbelief from both the performers and the audience. Alcina’s over-the-top story adheres to this tradition, allowing the audience to focus on the vocal prowess of the singers and the grand dramatic gestures at play. What sets it apart is the remarkable depth with which the vocalists imbue their characters, surpassing the typical conventions of classical-era opera.

Vanessa Goikoetxea as Alcina portrays a character teeming with self-doubt and anxiety over abandonment, despite her apparent domination. As her powers wane, Goikoetxea’s performance resonates with increasing desperation. Countertenor Randall Scotting exudes masculine bravado yet unveils unexpected vulnerability when reflecting on his predicament, forming a captivating juxtaposition. On the other hand, Ginger Costa Jackson’s Bradamante brims with unwavering devotion for her lover – and intense aggression toward her lover’s captor. The duo of tenor John Marzano as Oronte and soprano Sharleen Joynt as Morgana beautifully exemplify the poignant yearning frequently thwarted by love’s capricious nature.

Christine Brandes, an expert in Baroque opera, led a focused performance by the Seattle Symphony musicians in the pit. Handel’s ear-catching score sprang to life with crucial instrumental depth in each aria. Playing with great precision and clarity, the orchestra’s color extended to the opera’s ever-present continuo, which added pop to otherwise perfunctory recitatives.

While this Alcina delivers strong vocal performances and lithe orchestral accompaniment, the production falls short in comparison. The set is minimalist: just a scattering of blue-green chairs and a background screen showing computer-generated images of Alcina’s enchanted realm. Dim lighting mutes whatever color exists in the sets and modern costumes, and the melancholic tone of the opera seems even more pronounced. The opportunity to make small production touches that could have added an emotive vibrancy to match the efforts of singers and orchestra is missed.

Seattle Opera’s return with Alcina is a milestone for the city’s opera scene. Any opera by Handel is a welcome change from the usual fare and appropriate for the company’s sixtieth anniversary season. The performance shines through the strong vocal and orchestral artistry – the exceptional character portrayals joined with Brandes’s sensitivity, make it a memorable exploration of one of Handel’s most popular operas.

Zach Carstensen

2 thoughts on “Seattle Opera makes a rare foray into Baroque opera with Handel’s <i>Alcina</i>”

  1. I was quite saddened by the extensive cuts, although I suppose it’s much less approachable to have 3.5 hours of music than 2.5

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree, but most productions have some degree of cuts. I wish they would have retained the ballet music.


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