George Frideric Handel, never one to buckle under pressure, was not about to declare defeat. In late 1734, his company’s dread competitor, the Opera of the Nobility, succeeded in poaching the lease to the hit composer’s popular West End venue. Finding himself evicted from the King’s Theatre, his exclusive base of operations for over a decade, was outrageous enough. Losing valued singers, many imported from the Continent at great personal cost, to a unprincipled band of moneyed aristocrats was positively infuriating. Handel fought back, determined to save his season. Canny developer turned promoter John Rich threw his hat into the ring, placing his recently completed music hall, Covent Garden, at George Frideric’s disposal two times a week. His new tenant could scarcely believe his luck. Not only did the theatre come fully equipped with the very latest stage machinery, but the management also provided a small dedicated chorus plus a modest company of professional dancers led by a French ballet mistress.
Handel’s 1735 – 1736 series was among his most glittering, crowned by a sensational new opera seria, Alcina. The English capital was mesmerized. Less than two years later, eclipsed by Handel’s showmanship, the Opera of the Nobility went bankrupt.
Toronto’s Baroque opera specialist, Opera Atelier, increasingly conspicuous on European stages, sets the city’s lavish Elgin Theatre spinning with a glorious new production of Handel’s swirling masterpiece. This is an Alcina of stunning proportions.
Rooted in the sixteenth century epic poem Orlando Furioso, the story of Alcina echoes with savage archetypes. A tangle of voracious sexuality and seething jealousy, the dense, fevered tale plays out against against a wild, mythic tableau.
A pair of intrepid travellers arrives on the island kingdom of the mighty sorceress Alcina. The first visitor, a young woman, Bradamante, disguised as her brother Ricciardo, has come in in search of her betrothed, the warrior Ruggiero, who has fallen under the power of Alcina’s spells. The second, Ruggiero’s ex-tutor, Melisso, bears a magic ring which enables those who wear it to dispel illusions. Morgana, Alcina’s ethereal companion, appears and instantly falls in lust with the handsome Ricciardo. All make their way to Alcina’s palace. Bradamante encounters Ruggiero who, she is horrified to discover, has lost all memory of her. Possessed by desire, the once noble champion of goodness serves only Alcina now. Oronte, commander of Alcina’s troops, arrives intent on slaying Ricciardo whom he accuses of stealing Morgana, the ferocious general’s longtime consort. Morgana intervenes to save Ricciardo’s life. Frustrated and enraged, Oronte turns his wrath on Ruggiero, describing how Alcina transforms her discarded lovers into rocks and beasts. He is a fool to believe he will avoid their fate. Alcina longs for Ricciardo now, he lies, hoping to goad Ruggiero to violence. Ruggiero lashes out. Alcina is bitterly wounded by his sudden hostility towards her. Morgana warns Ricciardo to escape. Ricciardo vows to stay, insisting he will never leave the one he loves. Morgana mistakenly believes Ricciardo’s heart is hers.
Melisso takes command, slipping his magic ring onto Ruggiero’s finger. The bewitched hero instantly snaps back to reality. Shocked and appalled, Ruggiero sees Alcina’s domain for the desert wasteland it truly is. Escape beckons but Melisso advises caution. Alcina’s powers are undiminished. Ruggiero is to pretend to go hunting, dressed for combat. Bradamante discards her manly disguise. Ruggiero, suspecting another of Alcina’s ruses, distrusts his own eyes at first. Alcina appears. Ruggiero seems strangely distant. The spurned sorceress senses betrayal. Oronte suspects rebellion afoot. Alcina calls on the demons of hell to halt Ruggiero’s flight but her incantation goes unanswered. Her spells have lost their power.
Morgana and Oronte reconcile, drawn together by their durable mutual affection. Ruggiero reasserts his rightful heroic nature. Love wars with vengeance in Alcina’s thoughts. Bradamante and Ruggiero set forth to free Alcina’s victims from their enchanted captivity. Smashing the orb containing her sinister magic, Ruggiero releases the life spirits of Alcina’s lovers long imprisoned. Sorceress and realm are destroyed.
The mad action so breathlessly showcased here, even by pumped up eighteenth century standards, is beyond over the top. Director Marshall Pynkoski’s astonishing staging captures all the stormy theatricality of Handel’s hyper-drama.
Set designer Gerard Gauci’s elaborately painted drops and wing curtains provide a series of broadly decorative graphic fields. Overlaid with projected video imagery, the effect is strangely dream-like. Sand dunes morph into a sprawling naked figure. Waterfalls rush over rocky outcrops dissolving into sinuous shoulders and arms. Muscular bodies support the weight of a palace. Alcina’s haunted empire built of discarded men is vividly conjured.
Mirroring the sweep of the production’s imposing dioramas, physical performances are appropriately big. Pynkoski’s production has no place for timid characterizations. Gesture and movement are on a grand scale. Pantomime plays well in this Alcina.
The opera’s vibrant musical values are eloquently expressed in equally open-hearted terms. Leading the sprightly Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, conductor David Fallis delivers Handel’s rich, panoramic score with characteristic focus and expression, tender at times, tempestuous at others, always discerning. Playing is uniformly expressive. Sinfonias and Alcina’s numerous ballet interludes are luxurious and fluid. Recitatives, both accompanied and secco, are breezy and brisk. The partnering of players and vocalists is, quite simply, exquisite. Handel’s da capo arias, as more than one commentator has noted, are portals to his characters’ psyches. Fallis and ensemble, joined by a troop of superb singer actors on stage, excel at flinging the musical doors wide open.
In Alcina’s title role, soprano Meghan Lindsay summons a sorceress of enormous complexity. Graced with a bright, limpid instrument, luscious timbre and superb technique, Lindsay reaches deep into her character to craft a performance bursting with paradox. Enticing and formidable, imperious and pitiable, this is an Alcina ambushed by love, lost in an emotional wilderness with no way out. Magic provides no release. Lindsay stretches anguish beyond the breaking point, singing with shattering intensity and beauty. Her Alcina’s searing cry of pain on learning she has been abandoned, Handel’s gripping twelve-minute plaint, Ah! mio cor! (“Ah! My heart!”), is extraordinary.
As Alcina’s besotted lover, Ruggiero, mezzo Allyson McHardy clearly delights in the irony of her celebrated trouser role. A woman playing a man enslaved by a woman is a delicious period conceit energetically exploited here. McHardy’s voice with its strong, bold colours fits the lovestruck warrior as securely as his gleaming armour. Her robust treatment of the opera’s only martial air, Ruggiero’s Sta nell’icrcana (“In a stony lair”), accented by brassy Baroque natural horns, packs a powerful punch.
Mezzo Wallis Giunta appears as a swashbuckling Bradamante/Ricciardo. Frequently seen in gender-bending crossover roles, Giunta gives a feisty, animated performance bubbling with chutzpah, sprinkled with pathos. Her singing convincingly captures the contradiction, crisp and assertive in action scenes, warm and sweet in romantic encounters.
Mireille Asselin is Alcina’s Morgana, lusty, guileless, all natural. More mischievous buffa soubrette than earnest tragedienne, the endlessly entertaining lyric soprano positively sparkles, her coloratura frisky and zestful, her comic timing snappy. Singing a spectacular Tornami a vagheggiar (“Come quickly back to court me”), the vampish scene stealer brings Act I to a close on a thrilling high note.
Tenor Krešimir Špicer is an explosive Oronte, his voice rich in sonoro shaded with unexpected dusky colours. Olivier Laquerre is a fine, fretful Melisso.
Choreographer Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg leads her splendid troop of dancers from Atelier Ballet in flowing, sumptuous outpourings of love and longing. The Opera Atelier Chorus rings the rafters, bookending the production.
Revived by Handel only once in 1738, Alcina fell out of favour with audiences, as did so many other early opera supernovas that once burned so bright. It would not be seen again for nearly two hundred years. Opera Atelier has done more than resurrect the flamboyant blockbuster. Pynkoski and company have given it brilliant new life.