Handel’s Alcina ● by Chris Lynch
This February, Indiana University Opera will present Handel’s fantasy opera Alcina in a new production designed by Robert Perdziola, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, and conducted by Arthur Fagen. Although the opera was written in 1735, according to Rader-Shieber, “Handel has created characters that still speak to us today; that suffer the same pains, glory in the same loving gestures, and interact with the same bittersweet triumphs that we do.”
In the opera, Alcina has lured Ruggiero to her magical island, where she seduces men before transforming them into plants, animals, and rocks. Bradamante, who is engaged to Ruggiero, disguises herself as “Ricciardo” and travels to the island. With the assistance of her governess Melisso and fellow traveler Oberto, who is there in search of his father, Bradamante breaks Alcina’s spell, which has caused Ruggiero to forget his love for her. When they destroy the urn that is the source of Alcina’s powers, Alcina and her sister Morgana vanish, and Oberto reunites with his father.
Rader-Shieber describes the production as “visually stunning, grand in scale, and yet appropriate for this very intimate story. Our production plays with the idea of its original setting, Alcina’s island, and interprets it in a new way. The physical theater itself plays a big role in the opera; which is about a kind of beautiful, sad magic that is revealed to be nothing more than theatrics. Although we are setting the production in the modern era, the eighteenth century of its creation is very much present in the look of the opera.”
Handel has shaped his characters through colorful and imaginative music. If you saw IU’s production of Handel’s Xerxes two season’s ago, you’re familiar with the composer’s method of continually changing the orchestral forces and texture to create a musically rich tapestry that illustrates and articulates the drama. With its elements of magic—both seen on stage and heard in the orchestra—Alcina is perhaps one of Handel’s most colorful works. According to assistant conductor Juan Carlos Zamudio, “I think what Maestro Fagan is looking to do is to bring out as many orchestral colors as possible, and his worry is always to match the character and the dramatic purposes.”
Alcina’s recitative and aria at the end of act 2 (“Ah! Ruggiero crudel” … “Ombre pallide”) exemplifies Handel’s musical palette. One of the most stunning and colorful musical scenes in the opera, Zamudio refers to it as “quite crazy in terms of the melody and harmony.” The recitative commences with sustained chords accompanying Alcina as she laments her loss of Ruggiero. As she attempts to cast a new spell on him, she finds that she is powerless, and her impotency is musically represented in the sparse texture; the harmony drops out and her vocal line is merely doubled in unison strings. As she ponders the loss of her powers in the following aria, her despondency is heard in the chains of dissonances in the orchestra and the long, winding, and often fragmented vocal lines. As the orchestra adopts a simpler tone, she briefly seems to accept her loss, and she breaks her wand in two. With this however, her rage overtakes her once again and the mournfulness and fury of the opening returns.
The opera will feature two casts, which will perform on alternate nights, and Zamudio is looking forward to witnessing each performer develop his or her character. “The cast is astonishing. One of the Ruggiero’s [Deniz Uzun] just won the Central Region Finals of the Metropolitan Opera competition and will compete in the national semi-finals. The other Ruggiero is a countertenor, so they are casting a countertenor and a wonderful mezzo for that role. Shannon Love, who will play Alcina, has this purity of tone and this flexibility that is mesmerizing, and Elizabeth Toy, the other Alcina, has this sweetness and her stage presence is just enchanting. I’m really excited to look at how these amazing singers and actors develop their characters. Both casts are going to be so interesting to see because the soloists all have very strong personalities.”
Another one of those singers is Kellie Motter, who will play Morgana. Motter appreciates the latitude that Handel gives his performers. “I think the coolest thing about this opera—and many Baroque operas really—is the degree of personal choice the singers are given in the score. Handel gives his singers room to make their own stylistic choices. We can choose to embellish and ornament passages in ways that best suit our own individual voices. In this fashion, I think it’s safe to say that no one does the same role the exact same way. Every production of Alcina is new, in a sense.”
Motter shares Zamudio’s excitement for the individuality of the performers. “I think Alcina is an opera in which the individual voices are given many opportunities to shine. I look forward to hearing how each singer interpolates their own personal flair into Handel’s music, which, to be honest, is beautiful enough even by itself.”
Rader-Schieber enumerates three things beyond the beautiful singing that audiences should be excited about in this production. “First, it’s not often in the states that one gets a chance to see and hear this piece. Second, it’s an opera about young people, being performed by young people, which makes for a great energy, and a kind of immediacy that’s rare in the opera world. Third, it’s a great opportunity to spend an evening laughing and crying, and leaving feeling more simply “human” than when you entered.”
The opera will be performed at the Musical Arts Center at 8:00 p.m. on February 6, 7, 13, and 14.