Pornography being the seminal [sic] art form of our time, through which every other art is interpreted (I lament this, but what can you do?), and opera being in one of its periodic up-cycles, new ones being composed and premiered, old ones being dusted off for re-use, and stage directors feeling impelled, as they do, to reinterpret the classics through the chic, pornographic lens, it seems extraordinary that so few new operas are written on situations that would fit the time.
Who needs Little Women or Moby Dick? What the public, and the directors, obviously long for is Devora fa Dallas or Tool e Die de L.A. Therefore it was a pleasure to attend a performance of Handel’s Alcina, whose source and story are thoroughly orgiastic, and see the modern method for once suited to the plot. And having young, enthusiastic performers who know just what they’re doing adds, you know, to the success of any boudoir venture.
The presenters were something called Pocket Opera of New York, a new, young company who, on this showing, merit both fame and prosperity. Some folks like their opera grand, and I understand, but for me, hearing grand voices in grand scores in a tiny venue can provide a more visceral thrill: encountering the Voice, up close and personal, whispering sweet Italian nothings fortissimo in your ear.
At Pocket Opera’s Alcina, if none of the voices were quite flawless, all the singers were fresh and skilled, trained in Handel style, and apt to display it with passion as well as precision. The set consisted of a red Récamier chaise-longue and the orchestra numbered nine—no brass, aside from the Pocket Opera’s in giving one of Handel’s most elaborate operas with such forces. Costumes were not exactly minimal—Bradamante, for instance, had to wear a business suit over her skirt when disguised as a man, or the plot wouldn’t work—but the duds were easily shed during a trill or two.
Alcina, also known as Elaine, was one of King Arthur’s witchy half-sisters. (Another of them, Morgan le Fay, also shows up.) Alcina settled on a desert island, emulating Homer’s Circe (whom she invokes at one point), and entertained herself in amorous dalliance. Tiring of each lover in turn, she recycled them as trees, rocks, menagerie animals. She got her comeuppance when she fell in love with the gallant Ruggiero, who succumbed quickly enough but was pursued to the island by his cross-dressing girlfriend, the warrior-maiden Bradamante, Charlemagne’s niece. Enabled by a magic ring to see the truth behind Alcina’s enchantments, Ruggiero overthrew the regime and rescued its victims. This is important because Ruggiero and Bradamante are the mythic founders of the house of Este, and their descendant, Duke Alfonso (Lucrezia Borgia’s husband, remember?), was the patron of Ariosto, who invented all these tales for his epic poem, Orlando Furioso.
Handel composed Alcina when his initial conquest of London was jeopardized by the opening of a rival company. Pace Julie Taymor, in the theater nothing succeeds like excess, and Handel’s answer was to create a series of “magical” operas, featuring (besides A-list singers) ballet, scenic gimmickry, lighting tricks and transformations—the works. London was thrilled but Handel went broke. The scores for these elaborate entertainments, however, are among his best, and the temptation in the early days of baroque revival was to dazzle the eye with the production and the ear with singing unlike anything audiences were used to. Fifty years after Zeffirelli and Sutherland knocked Venice for a loop with this opera (Sutherland winning her nickname, “La Stupenda,” on the occasion), Alcina is known the world over and we’re all accustomed to the vocal style and the dramatic formalities of the baroque.
There is a great deal in the story of Alcina to appeal to the modern porn-mad producer. Hints in the poem suggest Alcina’s island is Ibiza during high season, and at Pocket Opera everyone seemed to be blissed out on X, open hands-on sensual indulgence of every variety going on. (How many sexual acts can you imply by means of coloratura ornament?) As with most opere serie, the arias cover a range of feelings run amok among several unstable characters, and anyone who has observed the pairings and trios—and solitudes—of an orgy will recognize the model here. One thing might have disquieted the wary sensualist: Everyone in the Pocket Opera production was armed, and a proposition might earn you a dagger in the guts or an embrace—or both.
In Handel’s setting, Alcina, having fallen genuinely in love, is unable to command the dark forces against Ruggiero, who, freed of her enchantment, destroys Alcina’s magic. Everyone else passes through dark night to happy dawn. But at Pocket Opera we had one of those damned European stage directors, Erwin Maas, a Dutchman, who returned at the end to the same blade-baring tableau of the opening, with no one transformed and no one happy. I didn’t comprehend this at all, but I ran into one of the singers afterwards, who explained that (per Maas) the whole island is Ruggiero’s sex fantasy, Alcina as devil, Bradamante as angel, both of them his constructs, and at the end we were to assume nothing has been altered by the drama except the focus of his masturbation fantasies. This isn’t what the music says, or the text, and it was not made clear by the staging. Whoever said theater was a means of communication? How old-fashioned of me!
The singers were gung-ho anyway. Tanya Roberts, a pretty Canadian soprano, made an imperious, cold-hearted Alcina (when not writhing on the sofa, trilling away, countertenor between her legs), and then sang the extended heartbroken phrases of “Ah! mio cor” with a yearning that thrilled. The title role is one prima donnas would kill for, and she did it justice in a voice of focused brilliance, agility and impressive size.
Ruggiero, composed for a castrato and usually sung by a mezzo or a tenor, was here performed by male alto Nicholas Tamagna. A slim, handsome figure and an enthusiastic actor, Tamagna possesses a voice that couldn’t resemble a sexless choirboy’s less. He fills the theater with sound like a powerhouse Verdi mezzo (I’ve heard him before, as the first ever male Ulrico [sic] in Ballo in Maschera), yet he makes a moving thing of the tender phrases of the opera’s most famous aria, “Verdi prate.” (This made me the sadder that the director cut his “Mio bel tesoro,” an equally gorgeous such number.)
Solange Merdinian had the cross-dressing duties of Bradamante down, and only looked confused when the libretto required her to be so. Her “Non è amor ne gelosia” made her own bewilderment apparent as well as that of the couple fighting over her. Suzanne Rigden, after a shrill start, abruptly opened up into major coloratura flights as Alcina’s sister, Morgana, who gets to sing the famous “Tornami a vagheggiar.” Donald Groves sang the thankless role of Oronte (nearly all tenor roles in Handel operas are thankless) with gentle beauty. Matthew Royal was a distinguished wizard Melisso. Claire Kuttler, as the boy Oberto, sang effectively and looked as disgusted and puzzled as a pre-adolescent well might at the sensual approaches of his elders.
The small orchestra and a score cut to three hours (but including a surprisingly large number of the opera’s famous tunes, all with their contrasting sections and properly ornamented da capos) were led briskly and movingly by Jorge Parodi.
Three performances, Thursday to Sunday, were given. If they’d run to another weekend, I’d have gladly paid for seconds. How often do you get such good opera in your face, all but giving you a lap dance? After several arias, I wanted to slip a few bills in the singers’ lingerie.
Photo: Jian Jung