Old things may become new. Handel’s opera, Alcina, which premiered in 1735 has done just that – quite magically so. Washington National Opera has dared to take on the classic sorceress for the first time, and it couldn’t have been better timed. “Witchy” and “witchiness” have come back into vogue as women choose to reclaim their power and seek revenge on men who would be their abusers and purveyors. (Sadly, this doesn’t go so well for Alcina, but who back then was writing women’s history?)
The company has found a cast of singers who make some fantastic magic in their own right. Everyone unfamiliar either with Handel’s opera or Baroque opera in general should strike out to the Kennedy Center not to miss this rarity – if only to hear voices of this clarity and daredevil improvisational agility – it’s veritable 18th-century jazz!
Another even more powerful “borrow” from the Baroque is how director Anne Bogart has guided an all-together appropriate updated casting that represents gender fluidity.
Alcina, the sorceress lives on an island where she takes on lovers, in Bogart’s staging both male and female, and when she tires of them, turns them into “zombie-monsters” who literally litter the landscape. Her most recent conquest, Ruggiero, who would have originally been played by a surgically-altered male castrato to keep the much-prized child-like sound, is instead played by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. Ruggiero’s fiancée, Bradamante, disguising herself as her brother Ricciardo modernized in military fatigues, has just arrived on the island to rescue him from being under Alcina’s spell.
Morgana, who shares the island with her sister Alcina, releases her engagement to Oronte, lusting after the clearly androgynous Bradamante. But she and a quartet of dancers at times dally, enjoying exquisite variety, and seem devoted to carnal explorations. One gets the impression that there’s more steamy sex possibilities here than a freshman dorm.
Baroque opera is all about creating a platform to feature the pyrotechnics of the individual voice. Set Designer Neil Patel has wisely chosen a spare minimalist set dominated by a huge disc of a moon and a glassy floor with lights that shoot up to create a watery world of illusion. With lighting by Christopher Akerlind, this design duo creates a magical backdrop where moon and curtain projections change color to fit musical moods.
It gives full focus to the individual singers who serve up aria after dazzling aria. And boy, do they dazzle!
Daniela Mack launches us into the work with “Oh! Dei quivi no scorgio” with a rich warm sound as if she was born to this role. Indeed, she sang it recently in a production at Santa Fe Opera and brings a kind of ripe confidence to the production. It’s a tough role in that Bradamante spends a lot of time on stage having to react to the unraveling of her primary relationship and his unthinkable betrayal. Throughout the evening, Mack filled every moment emotionally, whether furious or despairing. There’s a moment her character loses it and she pulls out a gun on stage. I wanted to leap from my chair and scream she was so dramatically believable. Also, Mack attacks the almost impossibly long melodic lines with amazing technical control and sensibility. With every cascading ripple, she has carefully chosen a specific emotional purpose.
Elizabeth DeShong as her fiancé in the grips of Alcina’s spell is a knock out in the role. She took charge both vocally and emotionally. As she sang aria after aria, reaching vocal heights then plunging with authority into deep and dark notes, she not only convinced me she was Alcina’s prized lover and the eventual undoing of a sorceress’ selfish and careless power, but enthralled me. Indeed, I grew lost in the grip of a spell by the singer’s prowess and gorgeous coloring of Handel’s musical lines.
I read that it was for Angela Meade, who plays the sorceress, that Artistic Director Francesca Zambello mounted the production. (Was she also under the spell of the power and beauty of Meade’s voice when she sang a few seasons ago the title role in Norma?)
Meade has a voice so enormous you can see why the whole opera world has succumbed. (At times, it seemed a little too heavy for the work.) Undeniably, she also has a mighty stage presence and knows how to wield that power. In her opening scene, she walks around the stage curling her fingers, beckoning to the members of the chorus who fall about her. Similarly, at her best moments, she reeled in the audience with impossibly soft yet audible pianissimos, then suddenly pulled out the stops in a raging voice that thundered throughout the Eisenhower auditorium. When finally she collapses to the floor, Alcina’s power spent and her cruelty left her broken and lonely, we watch an amazing transformation.
With any cast other than this, Meade would have eclipsed them all, but there was a special alchemy of voices on display in this production. Even the youngest members more than held their own.
Michael Adams, a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program who nearly stole the show last season at WNO in his cameo performance in Dead Man Walking, returns here in the role of Melisso, the tutor who helps Bradamante and Ruggiero turn the tables on Alcina. His dark baritone lends welcome weight and color to the lightness of the Baroque style. Rexford Tester, a recent graduate of the program and who sang Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, rises to the occasion in another tenor-as-lover role with a gorgeous rendition of Un momento di contento.
The new star born of this production is the lovely Ying Fang. The coloratura from Ningbo, China captivated everyone in the audience in the role of Morgana. She makes Handel’s high trills and airy lines seem effortless.
closes November 19, 2017
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Dressed in a girly-girly pink tulle dress with satin bows, Fang moved like a cloud of airy cotton-candy confection, skipping and sinking then leaping up, and never seeming to touch the ground. Fang has a million expressions and demonstrates she is not only a consummate singer but also a delightful comedic actress. She goes from an adorable panting puppy following Bradamante in devoted little tiptoe-bourées across the stage to spoiled girl throwing off her boyfriend then to raging jealous woman, and finally becoming a weepy penitent, coming-home-wagging-her-tail-behind-her.
The work with aria after long aria would not have worked such magic without the inestimable Jane Glover at the helm of the orchestra. Watching Glover conduct with the authority of her experience in this repertoire and also her light touch is a privilege. Even in the weightier emotional pieces, she moved the orchestra and singers along with a certain sprightliness that becomes the style.
Choreographer Barney O’Hanlon had imaginative and charming ideas with his use of four dancers to feature them as both Alcina’s spirit helpers and amorous consorts.
Bravo that the show was given its due at the Eisenhower Theater. The comparative intimacy of the space plus the kinder, gentler acoustics allowed for an excellent balance between the singers and Handel’s scoring, especially of the lighter plucked period instruments of harpsichord, harp, and theorbo.
I confess I had some reservations throughout the evening. Chiefly, at times I could not follow Bogart’s directorial choices. The chorus, dressed in sartorial blacks, often distracted rather than electrified. While at first the group suggested something sexy and Fellini-esque, stage pictures grew psychological and leaden, more akin to Maxim Gorky’s “Lower Depths.” The choreography of these opiate-induced zombies required its members to process predictably (often carrying white cube stools) on and off stage, destroying focus.
There were several such distractions. Bradamante and Melisso had been directed to “carry on” in some kind of compartmentalized realistic dialogue, but it proved fussy and stole from whatever aria was taking place downstage. The most egregious of such moments was when, reunited with Ruggiero, Bradamante first appears as a woman completely transformed in a fabulous white dress. Had Bogart waited a few bars (which Handel had thoughtfully provided!) Alcina would not have been upstaged by this ravaging vision.
Nonetheless, I would not have missed such an evening of theatrical and musical sorcery. With only seven more performances this Handel gem is essential music-theater.
Alcina. Composed by George Frideric Handel. Libretto by Riccardo Broschi. Directed by Anne Bogart. Conducted by Jane Glover. Set designed by Neil Patel. Costumes designed by James Schuette. Lighting designed by Christopher Akerlind. Hair and Makeup designed by David C. Zimmerman. Choreographed by Barney O’Hanlon. With Angela Meade, Elizabeth DeShong, Ying Fang, Daniela Mack, Rexford Texter, Michael Adams and the Washington National Opera Orchestra and Washington National Opera Chorus. Produced by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith