Cher Public

Girl power

In an alternate universe, Hillary Clinton, about a year past her election to the Presidency, made her way from the White House to the Kennedy Center on a balmy November eve, sat down next to the second and fourth women appointed to the Supreme Court (Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, notably in attendance), watched an illuminating production of an opera that openly confronts female sexuality, power, and militarism in a performance featuring a predominately female cast, much of which was trained in the American conservatory system, that was both directed and conducted by women at the top of their fields and overseen by the most powerful woman in opera in the United States. 

Jesus Christ, I wish I were in that universe.

But we need only to open our ears and realize that we’re not in that universe. Instead, we’re in the universe where Washington National Opera’s lukewarm Alcina, staged by WNO for the first time in the smaller Eisenhower Theatre and unthreateningly misguided in both its musical and theatrical values, made little impact.   An opera that really could make an statement in a modern reframing went for timeless naught.

Anne Bogart’s spare (read: cheap) production was little more than traffic direction with some staid, awkward blocking choices thrown in. Characters were fleshed out to varying degrees and though arias seemed to receive some dramatic coaching, the recits were dutifully, uncreatively plodded through. It seemed like Bogart started from the defeatist stance of “Baroque operas lack real drama,” and the incohesive, tiresome result left me feeling that way. This may be the best she can do with Alcina, but much, much better can be done.

Left to fend for themselves, the singers fared a bit better. Angela Meade is a singer who often proves frustrating. With each viewing she seems slightly improved in some aspect from the last, but still, at 40, she reads “young artist.” Her performances are consistently incomplete in some way, despite a sound technique with generous legato, a large, technically adept voice that pushed the acoustical boundaries of the Eisenhower, and a growing interest in actually playing a character.

Here, she afforded Alcina two distinct moods: vulnerable and in command. Though she can’t play regal or vampy, Meade has found a solid part in Alcina that lets her show off her considerable range, throw in a couple of nicely-executed trills and runs, and angrily swirl her dress on occasion. If “Ma quando tornerai” lacked much fury, her “Ah mio cor” was thoughtfully paced and mournfully delivered, albeit with much vibrato. One just never got the sense that Meade really ruled the roost on the island. Alcina was more a moody landlady than a sensuous warden.

This means it was up to the rest of the cast to carry the performance. Despite being saddled with a gold pajama set and the wig Alison Williams wore in Peter Pan Live!, Elizabeth DeShong gave a committed characterization as Ruggiero. Her voice, a conflict between a rich, cottony timbre and a pervasive vibrato that irregularly sours notes in her upper range, benefits from colorful and expressive middle and lower ranges.

In a reading that seemed to reference the instinctual restrain and elegance of, say, Janet Baker, DeShong revealed herself the most adept interpreter on the stage. This was reinforced in her deeply felt “Verdi prati,” which unfolded with generous tone and genuine physicality, despite the lack of either “verdi” or “prati” onstage.

She was well matched with Argentine mezzo Daniela Mack, no stranger to the part of Bradamante. Statuesque and boasting a voice with the rich color and firmness (in both line and technique) of mahogany, Mack provided dramatic propulsion the performance needed. Her fiery “È gelosia” was absolutely a highlight of the evening.

The standout singer, though, was the delightful Ying Fang. An exponent of Juilliard familiar to New York audiences, Fang made a triumphant Washington debut as Morgana. Her soft, radiant soprano flowed with the coolness and ease of milk and sweetness of honey. She moved as she phrased, with grace and ease, and her characterization was nuanced and charming. “Tornami a vagheggiar” given to Morgana,in this production, was dispatched with ease. It may be because I’m listening to a lot of Rosenkavalier lately, but her performance left me longing to hear her Sophie—how many times does that ever happen?

Rexford Tester found himself stranded with the most illogical, busywork blocking of the cast and his pinched tenor made little impression as the villainous Oronte. The same can be said for the capable baritone of Michael Adams as Melisso, and this production excised the Oberto plotline altogether.

In the pit, Jane Glover lead a smooth yet monochromatic reading of Handel’s score from a pared-down Washington National Opera Orchestra. The regretfully minimal emphasis on the continuo instruments, combined with severe weakness from the woodwinds (always a pleasure in Handel’s scores, if well-executed), robbed a lot of the intrinsic delights from this score. The Washington National Opera Chorus, in their small appearances, sounded plain unrehearsed.

Neil Patel’s set, a circular platform with some fluorescent stools sprinkled about and a drop with a large circle cut out, evoked Alcina’s pleasurable island about as much as James Schuette’s drab and uniformly unflattering (emphasis on both “uniformly” and “unflattering”) costumes evoked anything actually wearable. The set also limited Barney O’Hanlon’s options for choreography, which was basically just more stage movement.

There’s little enchantment to be found in this visit to Alcina’s island—an audience succumbing to the temptation may be bored to stone.

Photo by Scott Suchman.

  • Porgy Amor

    Every Rose has its thorn. A good, tough piece. Ms. Fang often seems to be the standout. She and Mattei (she in a fairly small part, he in a large one) made that dreary Met Nozze a few seasons ago more bearable.

    • H_Badger

      Glad to see more of Ying Fang….I remember her in The Nose a few years ago. She was really something.

  • Camille

    Oh dear, how disapointing for you, and for us insofar as the upcoming Semiramide, and not to mention a certain druidessa in December.

    Perhaps a good thing that Ying Fang had a crack at the “Tornami a vagheggiar” in this instance, as it is such a wonderful showpiece. And Sophie does sound like a good role for her, come to think of it n

    Does anyone know who the substitute for the role of Semiramide might be?

  • grimoaldo2

    I am seeing this on Wednesday and this review makes me rather wish I weren’t.

    • grimoaldo2

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/strong-women-remain-adrift-in-alcina-at-wno/2017/11/05/4a95aab6-c24a-11e7-84bc-5e285c7f4512_story.html?utm_term=.61dedd237966

      Midgette in Washington Post-
      “The evening took its tone from Meade, a soprano whose large and beautiful voice is offset with phlegmatic singing that, on Saturday night, almost sank her. She sang correctly, but without buoyancy, so that the chains of coloratura emerged like little leaden pellets. And her presentation of her character’s emotion was so unvaried that the transition from insouciant enchantress to abandoned lover — which represents the work’s main dramatic motor — never quite came into focus…..I’m not sure there’s enough “there” there in the material Handel provided for anyone to come away with a sense of fulfillment without a little more explicit directorial guidance — or a stronger performer in the title role.”
      For sure Handel’s operas such as Alcina require dazzling, captivating singers of mind-blowing accomplishment in the lead roles or the operas turn into boring feats of endurance for the audience, usually the lead soprano and the part written fro the lead castrato will have six or seven long arias each. Who wants to listen to all that unless the singers are really really special?

      • Camille

        Grim--do you recall when La Junie sang that French Salome, or where? It was kind of a late in the day success for her, wasn’t it? It’s over on another thread. Tks.

        • grimoaldo2

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXpwl1VG10w
          Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège from June 7th til June 18th 2011
          The whole thing used to be on youtube, but not any more unfortunately. Yes it was considered quite an achievement for her.

          • Camille

            Well that was fast!! As long ago as 2011, it seemed a little later than that.

            Thanks a lot. Hoping there will be some information on that version available and sorry the youtube was pulled, but that is to be expected because of copyright wars,
            Etc.

          • Apulia

            yes I remember the entire thing at the time (on the internet, not in Liège) and it was much more than respectable

        • grimoaldo2

          “The Midge is always a pretty reliable source for description of vocal estates, so I’d pay heed to what she has written.”
          Yes. I believe her and the reviewer on this site, all right, it is in fact just along the lines I had imagined. I considered skipping this Alcina or waiting for the reviews to come out but then since I am such an advocate for Handel’s operas I thought I just have to go and see it.
          The review here says
          ” Alcina was more a moody landlady than a sensuous warden.This means it was up to the rest of the cast to carry the performance.”
          Not possible, can’t be done. “Hamlet” without the prince.

          • Camille

            Yea, thou art a True Handelian, and ’tis thy bounden duty to go present witness to thy Master.

            You can always close your eyes and think of England!

            I’m sorry, honey, but them’s the breaks. I’ve gotten to be super super vigilant about what I go to and hear as it is such a kick in the gut when something you love gets the bum’s rush of a treatment. It depreses me and deflates me for a few days. The concert with Martha Argerich and Mo. Pappano with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia was, on the other hand, so thrilling and enthralling that it totally made me fell young and happy and expectant of more good things! They were in D.C., but don’t know that you went to it. It’s on Medici.tv if you want a look. Ciao!

          • fantasia2000

            Handel is my most favorite opera composer too, and I travel to see his operas most of the time. Even then, my gut feeling told me to avoid this like plague, and it seems that it was right. The one that I’m sorry to miss is the Houston Giulio Cesare, that looks really fun. But I have to save up for the next two trips, both with William Christie conducting, Jephtha in Paris and Ariodante (McVicar brand new production, hopefully lightning does strike twice!) in Vienna! ;)

            • grimoaldo2

              Lucky you, I was sitting there last night thinking “William Christie, where are you? we need you!”
              Enjoy!

      • southerndoc1

        The photograph of DeShong in her onesie has to be seen to be believed.

  • PCally

    I guess I’m just overly critical but I think Meade has just been given so many chances in a wide variety of parts to justify that she’s something special and I still think she’s an unfinished singer who hasn’t given a sense of having any kind of perspective on the parts she playing. I imagine this could be a good part for her but I just think her phrasing is just to lethargic and unvaried for an aria that can last up to twelve minutes. I keep waiting for some button to click but I think that she’s at her current best.

  • Niel Rishoi

    I would never have thought even as a glimmer of possibility for Meade to be cast as Alcina -- nor any baroque role. My ideal Alcina was Arleen Auger. The smoothness of tonal output, the elegant phrasing, the sheer musicality, and sovereign authority with the Handelian idiom. Meade’s tone is too fruity and vibrant for this music. In fact I would take her out of baroque, Mozart and bel canto and put her in Wagner and Strauss -- where she can turn that big voice loose and have the cushion of a large orchestra.

    • Daniel Swick

      Ms. Kalna is a little short on glamour but boy does she know how to put this music across…check out the B section! She’s on fire.
      https://youtu.be/WUz7RK5kkRA

  • Daniel Swick

    Jane Glover is a bore of a conductor.

  • CKurwenal

    I think Meade has an absolute Rolls Royce of a voice but it’s clear by now that she isn’t the full package. Most people aren’t, and it doesn’t or shouldn’t make her a write-off as a singer -- it’s just that she has disappointed people who talked about her several years ago as having promise, whereas in fact what you saw back then was all you were ever really going to get. Still, she can sing some hard to cast stuff and deserves a successful career -- but perhaps one comprised mainly of singing revivals within her niche, rather than being the centre of new productions in lots of international houses.

  • Sandra Bowdler

    Oronte? Villainous? How so? He always seems to me to be a bit of a snowflake, as written anyway.

  • grimoaldo2

    OMG “bored to stone” is right.
    Stupid production. hideous costumes.boring conducting. boring orchestral playing (sour and scrappy strings a lot of the time, no lutes with the continuo).
    The true Handelian performance came from Daniela Mack, who sang with beauty and passion, and Ying Fang also sang prettily.
    The other singers were all boring. I agree with most of the review on this site and Midgette in the WaPo, but not with the praise for DeShong. She was boring. Yes she has quite a nice voice but that isn’t enough if you are going to sit there and listen to her go on and on and on and on in about five looooooooong arias in an hour and a half, need to grab, enthrall and ravish your senses with every note.
    Angela Meade has an excellent trill, it’s quite cool hearing her do that, which she did a lot, otherwise she was also boring, and as for any suggestion, vocally or any other way, of a wicked hedonistic sorceress. don’t make me laugh.
    An utterly mediocre tenor and what the programme calls a baritone, although Handel never wrote for baritones, only basses, also had their da capo arias.
    Except when Mack and Fang were singing I would be sitting there and realise with a sinking heart “Oh shit that is only the end of the first section of the aria, now there will be a middle section and then a da capo repeat, my god this is torture”.
    I found it excruciating, if I had had an aisle seat I would have left after twenty minutes, unfortunately I was trapped in the middle of a row and had to wait for the interval to escape.
    Faugh., What a waste of my time and money.

    • Camille

      Very sorry about this experience — but quickly go rinse and repeat —and then listen to your favourite recording of this opera, or listen to anything at all you love and just think of your upcoming trip to Berlin!

      It’s awful when it’s awful, and you’ve got to get rid of the experience as soon as you can. As you love Handel so, it probably hurts more than it would with other works.

      Ciao 4 now and please look forward!

      • grimoaldo2

        Thanks for your kind thoughts and good wishes dear Camille.
        Yes I have tried to erase the gruesome experience, just the overture and opening dance performed by the great Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre are so much better than last night
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VdHwrLgjxI
        Harteros is Alcina in this, you don’t have to be a Baroque specialist to sing Handel well but by god you need more than most of them displayed yesterday.

    • PCally

      Wow that sounds horrible!! Few composers benefit less from poor performances than Handel IMO (not that any composer looks good lol but Handel especially). Just listen to some Sutherland in this part as a belated celebration of her birthday, with some Auger on the side and you should be good a new.

      • grimoaldo2

        Thanks.

        • PCally

          Exactly. I was fortunate enough that my early live Handel experiences came when NYCO was still doing excellent Handel productions. I can’t imagine what I’d think if this had been my first encounter with alcina

          • Handel’s done pretty well in France since the tercentenary, with the help of people like Christie, Jacobs, Minkowski and Rousset.