For those who like their Handel loud, with no forfeit of baroque finesse, one promising solution is to make the hall smaller. The WhiteboxLab>Sound Lounge, presented at a gallery on Broome Street off the Bowery (what neighborhood is that? Let’s just call it the Bowery—where they say such things and they do such things), is a fine size for baroque opera if the voices are the tiny, refined sort who used to inhabit early music venues. For R. B. Schlather’s presentation of Alcina (continuing through tonight), the voices are huge without loss of agility (or acting chops), and the entire occasion is theatrical without compromising musical standards worthy of this brilliant score.
Enhancing the fun or at any rate the novelty of the occasion, the two-week rehearsal process has been open to the public, both passers-by and by streaming on line. This may or may not be a first, but it is surely not the last. If the general public does not come to the opera, opera must come after the general public—and, by making them like it, get them used to it. Alcina is a good place to start.
If you depend on Ariosto (who invented the story), the warrior Ruggiero was flying across the Mediterranean one day on a hippogriff (winged, lion-headed horse) in search of the lost wits of Orlando, and paused for a breather on the island of Alcina where he fell in love with the enchanting queen and forgot all about his engagement to Bradamante, Charlemagne’s Amazonian niece.
In time, Bradamante disguised herself as her brother Ricciardo and, with the wizard Melisso, followed Ruggiero to the island. That is where the curtain rises. Alcina and her co-ruler Morgana are, in fact, Elaine and Morgan-le-Fey, wicked witchy half-sisters of King Arthur, and therefore about 300 years old. Only sorcery keeps them young and the boys in hot pursuit. Discarded lovers are transformed into trees, statues, zoo animals. This is an opera about recycling.
We may suppose that the island in question is Mallorca or Ibiza, already a wild party scene, and the Schlather production seems to pursue this idea. The amorous contortions of opera seria become a saga of drugs, sex and dance-party, except the drugs are magical spells and the music is a lively eight-piece baroque band (strings, oboes, continuo). The crazy passions of the libretto make perfect sense for a summer night on the beach. The gender confusions are all in the script.
When Morgana (during the ritornelli of “Tornami a vagheggiar”) passionately kisses disguised, mustachioed Ricciardo/Bradamante, she (he?) regrounds her heterosexuality by kissing Melisso. (Does she protest too much?) Alcina, first seen in slinky black with a broad black hat on her raven hair, later, as she yields to her love for Ruggiero, goes platinum blonde, the dress blue and bejeweled.
At last, betrayed by love and by magic, her hair is a wigless brown, her skin covered in green face paint. She has adopted the languid kimono Ruggiero wore in Act I, when he appeared to be in a drugged stupor. Basso Melisso is in the black sheath and hat and tenor Oronte has acquired Morgana’s fairy togs and red slippers. Terese Wadden provided costumes to change character as aptly as any change of orchestration, and Dave Bova is to be thanked for Alcina’s moody hair.
A hornpipe finale heralds the sunrise, when everyone is their sober self again. “I was a tree,” “I was a stone,” “I was a wandering wave,” sing members of the chorus (per Handel), but Whitebox gives these lines to the soloists, and we understand them metaphorically: What was I doing last night? (And with whom?)
For half a century, since Joan Sutherland sang it in Venice and was dubbed “La Stupenda,” Alcina has been one of the hits of the Handel revival, a feast for star sopranos and mezzos (or whoever sings the castrato role of Ruggiero—I’ve heard four different mezzos and a countertenor take it on, and on CD, Fritz Wunderlich). It’s the only Handel work the New York City Opera staged twice, and a concert version starring Joyce di Donato will appear at Carnegie Hall next month. (Not to boast or anything, but my first Alcina there was Cristina Deutekom.) Whitebox omitted the role of Oberto, the ballets and several arias, but the six singers each had chances to shine and the occasion clocked in at two and a half hours.
Katharina Hagopian sang Alcina with a rich, dark soprano, slightly chalky on top but thrilling in passionate utterances—in one aria, as her mood changed (as it will in da capos) from hopeful to agonized, she skipped the written pause and segued immediately from happy mood to a long cry of anguish and the tragic repeat. Anne-Carolyn Bird sang the flirtatious Morgana with lovely ingratiating tones and witty use of ornament. Jamie Van Eyck sang Ruggiero with wonderful trills, especially in the slow arias that are the heart of Handel. Eve Gigliotti, as Bradamante/Ricciardo, made the rafters shake when she let her noble mezzo out to roar, but her ornamentation was somewhat uneven.
Samuel Levine, the Oronte, possesses an exciting tenor, though it varies considerably in quality from an ardent top to a more comfortable middle voice. In the small bass role of Melisso (Handel tosses him a single aria), David Adam Moore, when not singing, diverted us with gestures that filled out his character, then filled the room with rich dark sound that soothed and contrasted with the trebles around him. We were already delighted with him before he showed up in Alcina’s black sheath and hat for a solo dance to her final aria. It is typical of Schlather’s technique to have singers, when not singing, undertake the part of props, scenery and corps de ballet.
Geoffrey McDonald led the small, immensely adept ensemble in this vivid and delightful performance.
Photo via Instagram.