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.