We live in an era of deception. As if Facebook hadn’t yet offered a cause for concern about the rise in fake news, now the prospect of a magical digital island, the so-called metaverse, is emerging, in which our illusions, whether good or evil, can freely evolve. …
These are not really new ideas. Dissimulation and the enchanted islands were catnip for 18th century opera composers, as they have been in literature and myth for centuries. Handel’s late opera Alcina is one of the irresistible examples of the extravagant excitement and charm they create. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Opera House imported London’s historic English Concert, led by artistic director Harry Bickett, and a group of great singers for the first of two live performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (he’s playing again. Friday). It was enough to get things done.
Alsina achieves this with little more than a series of amazing arias – spectacular, hilarious, sweet, evil, funny, seductive, pastoral, heartbreaking, feverish, cryptic – along with recitative that can unpack gender-changing narratives such as this call. Had the English Concerto and Singers performed at the end, the performance would have lasted more than four hours. Slightly cropped, he showed Chandler for three hours and 40 minutes.
This fantasy focuses on the sorceress Alsina, who lures lovers to her island and then turns them into animals, rocks, or other pieces of the landscape. The dashing knight Ruggiero, seduced by Alsina, is freed from her spell by his fiancée Bradamante, who arrives in a costume disguised as Alsina’s brother, Riccardo. Alsina’s sister, sweet and fickle Morgana, immediately falls in love with Bradamante, whom she considers a man. All these roles are played by women. (The role of Oberto, a young man whose father once turned Alsina into a tiger, could also have been played by a woman if the role had not been excluded from the show.) It turns out to be a celebration of the vocalism of four multidimensional characters. – performed by women who are undergoing an epic transformation and two typical men who do not.
The deliberate and unintended consequences that these revelations have on the characters lead to jealousy, disappointment, momentary joy – and ultimately to devastating pain, seeming triumph, even a pause to admire nature, as aria follows aria on this dystopian island. This ends with the defeat of Alsina and Morgana. Animals and other elements of the scenery become people again. Lovers Bradamante and Ruggiero reunite.
But not everything is so simple. Alsina and Morgana get the most extravagant arias. They feel the strongest. They have the most humanity. The banality of evil is too banal for Handel. Although she is portrayed as a villainess, Alsina’s suffering is universal. We see ourselves, our disturbing impulses in her and, to some extent, in her assistant Morgana. They take us away with every memorable aria. Someone who sings such exciting and often delightful music with such sincerity cannot be so bad. Right? Handel’s real genius is that we are wrong.
There are advantages and disadvantages to presenting Alcina as a live performance. The opera has had some highly creative productions, especially a gripping one from Aix-en-Provence six years ago directed by Katie Mitchell, which unsettlingly confronts graphic sex and aging in the play; it is available on video. But this approach also distancing the audience.
Chandler had a small, stunningly virtuoso ensemble with Bicket conducting the harpsichord, sitting with his back to us in a way that never looked ostentatious. Singers in concert costumes did not necessarily watch their parts and did not try. Some were more expressive singers than others, but almost always in traditional ways. We were directly involved with music and drama.
The soprano Karina Gauvin, who sang Morgana a dozen years ago in arguably the best recording of the opera, is now a firm-voiced Alsina. Gauvin’s strength lies in her ability to demonstrate incredibly strong affection – albeit insincere – and overwhelmingly sincere bitterness of rejection.
Meanwhile, stage-gripping soprano Lucy Crowe finds in Morgan a fickle charm in every fabulously sung turn of a phrase. Paula Murrihi’s Ruggiero is a stupid fool who falls into Alcina’s trap. Yet in her detailed portrayal of a man who can recover, the brilliantly concentrated Irish mezzo made Ruggiero the character whose transformation mattered most.
Elisabeth DeShong slyly agreed to Bradamante’s gender-shifting characterization. Alec Schrader as the jealous Oronte (Morgana’s former lover) and Wojtek Girlach, Bradamante’s mentor and truth-teller, played their thankless roles.
However, Bicket tried to stay away from the singers. However, he discreetly empowered singers and instrumentalists, allowing the watch to run smoothly and easily.
However, the stage picture was not creative. Massive Chandler is hardly the ideal setting for a Baroque opera to have the intimacy that the piece demands. On almost exactly the same day, 35 years ago, in the first month of the first season of the Los Angeles Opera (then the Music Center opera), the troupe moved from the Music Center campus to effectively stage Alcina at the gilded Wiltern Theater.
The potentially enchanted world found itself only a few steps away from Chandler, in the current dark and perfectly composed forum of Mark Taper, whose origins as a chamber music hall were well-suited to capturing the idiosyncrasies of Alsina.
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
When: 19:30 Friday
Tickets: USD 17-149
Information: (213) 972-8001 or laopera.org
Duration: 3 hours 40 minutes