Countless episodes of Oprah and other programs of that ilk have dwelled on stories of women living in denial about their relationships. Unsurprisingly, many operas also deal with this phenomenon, one I was repeatedly reminded of during Sunday afternoon’s intermittently involving concert performance of Handel’s Alcina at Carnegie Hall starring an unusually intense Joyce DiDonato as a powerful sorceress blinded by her romantic delusions.  

When Handel’s operas began to be rediscovered in the 20th century, Alcina was one of the first to gain a foothold in the repertoire. Composed in 1735 for Covent Garden, it was the third of Handel’s trio of operas drawn from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and his last financially successful opera even though he would persevere with that Italian art form for another six years before turning fulltime to the English oratorio.

Carnegie Hall’s first performance occurred nearly 50 years ago featuring Joan Sutherland who also starred in the modern British premiere in 1958. Since then, the role of the lovesick enchantress has been embraced by diverse sopranos from Carol Vaness, Cristina Deutekom and Christiane Eda-Pierre to Christine Goerke, Karina Gauvin and Christine Schäfer. Complete recordings have featured Arleen Augèr, Renée Fleming and Anja Harteros as the besotted Alcina.

Seven years ago when Alan Curtis conducted his new Alcina recording, eyebrows were arched at DiDonato taking on the soprano title role, yet mezzos Tatiana Troyanos and Magdalena Kozená had already recorded Handel’s Cleopatra by then. No doubt helped by baroque tuning at a’=415 Hz, DiDonato scored a success on the Archiv CD and has been receiving ecstatic reviews for this autumn’s tour with Harry Bicket and The English Concert which stopped in London, Paris, Vienna and Madrid before its only US show at Carnegie Hall.

As during her recent Drama Queens tour, the faux-hawked diva was decked out in a wild couture concoction by Vivienne Westwood, this time a goth fantasia in yards and yards of black and army-green, layers of which were peeled off for each succeeding act. Although this striking outfit did set Alcina apart from the others, it’s unfortunate that Westwood couldn’t provide get-ups for the others, since it appeared that only the prima donna got the fancy duds while everyone else had to make do with their usual concert wear.

DiDonato was on her best current form beginning with “Di cor mio,” a rapt recounting of how she and Ruggiero fell in love, seductively sung while she canoodled with the bewitched Alice Coote. The crushing irony here, of course, is that they in fact didn’t fall in love: instead Alcina just cast a spell over the knight causing him to forget both his duty and his fiancée. In the sly “Si, son quella” she kept up the pretense by teasing Ruggiero that he may no longer love her.

However her spell is broken and the astonished knight remembers all. The ensuing second act was a real tour-de-force; DiDonato began the great lament “Ah, mio cor” on just the merest thread of tone spinning out her anguish at his betrayal. Handel brilliantly exploits the ABA da capo form here by shifting to a bristling B section where Alcina vehemently asserts that she is queen and Ruggiero must either return or die.

As those cries die out, Alcina returns to bemoaning her lot and DiDonato infused her aching lines with ever more despairing pathos: not only has she lost her lover but also the fantasy that he genuinely loved her. The act ended with DiDonato scalding in the fiery accompagnato “Ah Ruggiero crudel” followed by an increasingly desperate “Ombre pallide” in which she attempted to conjure her fading magic powers to thwart Ruggiero’s escape.

The role of Alcina, written for Anna Strada del Pò, features little of the florid music one expects from Handel but the third act does bring her sole bravura piece “Ma quando tornerai” which DiDonato fervently dispatched with peerless coloratura. She skillfully avoided allowing the sorceress’s final aria “Mi restano le lagrime” to devolve into a mawkish cry of self-pity as she mourned her abandonment by all, even the gods. However, her loss has occasioned no self-discovery for Alcina as she never acknowledges the devastation she’s wrought: in addition to bewitching Ruggiero, she populated her enchanted island by transforming dozens of men into wild beasts, including Oberto’s father.

Although I’m still troubled by DiDonato’s habit of straining into driven, straight-toned high notes, this was a compleat performance on a high international level. Unfortunately most of the remainder of the cast was not of this standard. The most satisfying was British mezzo Christine Rice as Ruggiero’s abandoned fiancée Bradamante, the truth-teller who ventures to Alcina’s island disguised as her brother Ricciardo. Her first two arias contain yards of fiendishly low-lying coloratura which Rice tossed off with flair although one wanted a bit more volume. She was equally touching in her third-act aria “All’alma fedel” where Bradamante gives thanks for Ruggiero’s return to her.

Bright-voiced Irish soprano Anna Devin enlivened the afternoon with her sprightly Oberto (a role often cut entirely). Her showpiece aria “Barbara! Io ben lo so” was a bit hectic but brought down the house.

Polish bass Wojtek Gierlach was a warmly communicative Melisso, Bradamante’s tutor who facilitates breaking the spell which holds Ruggiero. His sole aria, the stern “Pensa a chi geme,” proved a highlight. Ben Johnson’s biography didn’t list any other Handel roles which might account for his bumpy Oronte. Although he recovered for a winning account of “Un momento di contento” in Act III, he had struggled mightily earlier, particularly with “È un folle,” one of Handel’s most challenging bravura arias for tenor.

A quite pregnant Anny Christy simpered about as Alcina’s flirtatious sister Morgana reducing her to a coy soubrette. Her small, edgy soprano coped adequately with “Tornami a vagheggiar” without challenging past performances of the opera’s most famous aria. Often it was difficult to know if she was trilling or if it was just her quick vibrato. Like Johnson, she too partly redeemed herself with a final yearning “Credete al mio dolore” immensely aided by Joseph Crouch’s eloquent cello obbligato.

It could be argued that Ruggiero is the opera’s most important character; he certainly has the most music. Written for the famed soprano castrato Carestini, this role, along with that of Ariodante, has long remained the sole property of mezzo sopranos as the tessitura is too high for nearly all countertenors. However, this may be changing as Florin Cezar Ouatu, one of Angela Gheorghiu’s recent erstwhile boyfriends, appeared as Ruggiero several years ago in Lausanne and Philippe Jaroussky is scheduled to take on the role for the first time at next summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival, opposite the enchantress of Patricia Petibon. However, at Carnegie we had a mezzo–Coote in a puzzling performance.

Since starring in the Sergio Morabito/Jossi Wieler production of Alcina in Stuttgart in the late 1990s, the British mezzo has made a specialty of the role, appearing in that same Stuttgart staging for her debut at the San Francisco Opera in 2002. She has taken on a number of other Handel roles including Zenobia in Radamisto, Sesto in Giulio Cesare, Dejanira in the Peter Sellars production of Hercules in both Chicago and Toronto, and, most recently, the title role of Serse at the English National Opera. However, Sunday’s return to Ruggiero initially gave cause for alarm: her charmless rendition of his rougish first aria “Di te mi rido” was marred by harsh, breathy tones and choppy coloratura. “La bocca vaga” later in the same act was scarcely better.

Happily just as Alcina’s spell was broken, the clouds lifted from Coote’s voice: the lilting “Mi lusinga,” one of the score’s gems, was absolutely superb—warm and enveloping, as was the witty “Mio bel tesoro” where the dissembling knight pretends to still be enamored of Alcina. Whereas the mezzo had often referred to her score in Act I, she sang both these arias without consulting it. The serenely beautiful “Verdi prati” perhaps missed some of its usual magic, but this demanding act showed a transformed Coote.

Unfortunately, she struggled through Ruggiero’s martial “Sta nell’ircana” in the final act. Battling two temperamental natural horns and yards of challenging coloratura, she pulled back so much that at times she was nearly inaudible. She just barely got through the piece suggesting that despite the genuine successes of Act II perhaps Ruggiero is no longer the role for her.

As in its other recent Handel appearances at Carnegie, the English Concert under its music director Bicket played impeccably. However, as before, one comes away from these beautifully prepared, highly polished concerts grateful but wanting more, a more personal stamp on these glorious, inexhaustible works. It’s as if Bicket’s motto is foremost primum non nocere “first, do no harm.”

Except for DiDonato’s arias, vocal ornamentation throughout the afternoon was disappointingly modest. Happily there were few cuts although chopping the work’s only trio by two-thirds proved unfortunate. It was odd though that Janet E. Bedell’s program note prominently discussed Ruggiero’s aria “Bramo di trionfar” and the dance music Handel wrote for Marie Sallé since neither was performed.

Although this Carnegie/English Concert opera-oratorio series was originally planned for three years, I understand that Orlando, Handel’s disturbing view of chivalry and madness, is scheduled for an upcoming season. Let’s hope its five challenging roles will be more carefully and consistently cast than Alcina’s.

Photos: Richard Termine.