Alcina was written at a time in Handel’s career in London when he faced competition from a rival company and a resulting financial pinch. There was no loss in the master’s artistry, however. Premiered at the new theater at Covent Garden in 1735, Alcina was sufficiently successful to be revived for the following two seasons. It inexplicably fell into an extended period of neglect thereafter, to be revived once again by Franco Zeffirelli for the young Joan Sutherland in 1957.
Drawn from Ariosto’s Italian Renaissance epic poem, Orlando Furioso, Alcina is one of those operas with a plot of somewhat daunting complexity. The principal character of Bradamente disguises herself as a man–her brother–as she seeks the return of her lover, Ruggiero. Ruggiero, played by a castrato in Handel’s time, is generally sung today by a woman. So right off the bat, we’ve got a woman in drag paired off with another woman in drag, albeit the former under the premise of the plot and the latter due to the fact that castration for art is no longer practiced in civilized society. Gender confusion, on the other hand, seems utterly of the moment.
Alcina, a sorceress, is responsible for Ruggiero’s infidelity. She has bewitched him and taken him as her lover, wiping out his memory of the abandoned Bradamante. Ruggiero’s predecessors in Alcina’s arms have been transformed into beasts, trees, even streams by her spells, a convenient way of disposing of lovers who have ceased to amuse. This delving into the magical, however, only enhances the psychological verities of the conflict between selfish (and lonely) seductress and true love.
There is a second couple, for lighter charm and comic relief–Morgana (Alcina’s sister) and Oronte (Alcina’s servant), who also must overcome the impediment of jealousy as they find their way to true love.
Despite the storyline of potentially bewildering amorous entanglements, Alcina is far less confusing in a well-staged production than a reading of the plot summary might suggest. The tale of love pursued, love gained, and love lost is an ideal context for arias that arise from heartfelt emotions. Handel’s music, written for star voices of his time, is formidably challenging, exquisite melodies with long phrasing requiring extraordinary breath control and coloratura turns requiring virtuoso vocal dexterity.
Last year, San Francisco Opera imported a production of Alcina from Stuttgart, a production costumed in modern dress with a harshly lit contemporary unit set suggesting at various times a window and the mirror which is a key prop in the opera. SFO focused with great seriousness on the psychology and motivations of the various lovers, playing down elements of fantasy and magic, a somewhat Teutonically doom-and-gloom interpretation.
New York City Opera’s new production by Francesca Zambello, in contrast, sacrifices none of the insight, but keeps the tone lighter (we are dealing with sorcery and magic here, ferhevvinsake), the storyline clearer, and the visuals a whole lot more appealing than the Stuttgart interpretation. Neil Patel’s sets are dominated by a serviceable stone wall flat, representing Alcina’s castle, which divides irregularly in the middle, set at varying spacings to suggest different scenes. Alcina’s quarters are defined by classical columns encased in lucite and aluminum, a post-modern look that acknowledges classical themes. The imaginative lighting by Mark McCullough enhances the production without calling undue attention to itself.
A group of twelve male dancers, representing victims under Alcina’s spells, are costumed as shrubs or trees, wearing gloves with greatly extended fingers that take the form of branches and twigs. They weave in and out of the action in graceful patterns sometimes resembling 18th century dances, at once lending an element of contemporary fantasy and a link back to the opera’s historical roots.
Most importantly, the entire cast of young singers acquitted themselves with world class vocal skills, confident stage presence and dramatic verisimilitude. Christine Goerke, an American lyric soprano with a powerful voice, drew a musically stunning portrait of a woman who abuses her powers and pays the price. From haughty and domineering to human and needy, she realized her role faultlessly. Also of special note was another young soprano, Lauren Skuce, whose Morgana was a complete charmer; her second act pleading of her love for Oronte was genuinely moving, acknowledged by the audience with the most extended applause of the evening.