Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

Fantasy in Philadelphia: The Wake World

Composer and librettist David Hertzberg’s magical mystery tour that is The Wake World opened to a cheering sold out audience that was clearly enraptured with its magnificent artistic achievement.

A Mysterious Lucia at Forest Lawn

On September 10, 2017, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a beautiful outdoor setting at Forest Lawn. POP audiences enjoy casual seating with wine, water, and finger foods at each table. General and Artistic Director Josh Shaw greeted patrons in a “blood stained” white wedding suit. Since Lucia is a Scottish opera, it opened with an elegant bagpipe solo calling members of the audience to their seats.

This is Rattle: Blazing Berlioz at the Barbican Hall

Blazing Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra and The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girls' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Prokofiev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Gergiev, Mariinsky

Sergei Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Vesselina Kasarova {Photo by Marco Borggreve/Sony BMG]
06 Dec 2010

Handel’s Alcina at Barbican Centre, London

The Barbican’s Great Performers season often acts as a receiving house for continental opera productions, thus giving us in London a chance to hear interesting performances without actually having to travel.

George Frederick Handel: Alcina (HWV 34)

Inga Kalna: Alcina, Vesselina Kasarova: Ruggerio, Romina Basso: Bradamante, Veronica Cangemi: Morgana, Benjamin Bruns: Oronte, Luca Tittoto: Melissa, Shintaro Nakajima: Oberto, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble. Mark Minkowski, conductor. 4th December 2010, Barbican Hall, London.

Above: Vesselina Kasarova {Photo by Marco Borggreve/Sony BMG]

 

The drawback, of course, is that the works are presented in concert rather than staged. On Saturday 4th December, Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble appeared on the final leg of a short tour performing Handel’s Alcina in concert. This tour followed performances at the Vienna State Opera, staged by Adrian Noble. Noble chose to set the opera in the context of the historical Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who lived some 40 years after the premiere of Handel’s opera, so perhaps seeing the work in concert wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

In fact, Minkowski and his cast gave us a highly dramatic concert reading, with one exception all the cast were off the book and made the correct entrances and exits. Not only that, but whilst sitting on stage at the side they continued to react to what was going on. The result was a vivid and highly involving presentation of Handel’s opera and, for me, an almost ideal way to experience opera seria without having a director trying to translate it for me into contemporary dramatic terms.

There had been notices of cast changes well before the date of the concert, with Romina Basso apparently taking over the role of Bradamante only for the concert performances. Basso did use a score, but for much of the time she barely looked at it and her performance was no less dramatic than the rest.

In the title role there was another, last minute, substitution; Latvian soprano Inga Kalna took over from an ailing Anja Harteros. Kalna had already replaced Harteros on an earlier leg of the tour and there was no sense that she was a stand in, she gave a beautifully rounded, fully dramatic account of this fascinating role.

The role of Alcina could easily have been another one of Handel’s bad girl sorceresses such as Medea in Teseo or Melissa in Amadigi di Gaula. But Handel seems to have fallen a little in love with his heroine and instead presents us with a tragic figure who is really in love and who loses her magic powers as a consequence.

Kalna had something of the rather old-fashioned grand manner on stage, perhaps no bad thing when it comes to establishing a character presence on the concert stage. Her voice is rich and her repertoire includes Verdi and Strauss. But she has a lovely focussed tone which meant that all of Handel’s passagework was taken neatly and expressively, her moments of dramatic fire were terrific. But the role is about much more than this and Kalna’s expressive spinning of a line meant that she captured exactly the feeling of melancholy which imbues much of Alcina’s music. So that ‘Ah, mio cor’ (her first aria in Act 2), had a brilliantly intense contrast between the lamenting of the opening section and the angry central section. Minkowski placed the single interval after this aria and it was a terrific way to close the first half.

But for me Kalna’s finest moment was the closing scene of Act 2, when Alcina discovers that she can no longer use her powers. A long recitative is followed by the aria ‘Ombre pallide’ in which Kalna spun lines of quiet intensity. Alcina isn’t actually the major role in the opera; Alcina gets 6 arias plus a trio whereas Ruggiero gets 8 arias plus a trio. But Handel’s sympathy for Alcina ensured that it is Alcina whom we focus on, and Kalna conveyed this with dignity and intensity.

The sign of a good performance of opera seria is not the technical ability to sing all the notes accurately, but the way the singers use the notes expressively. One of the big advantages of this performance was the way all the cast used Handel’s music to project character.

kalna_alcina_riga03.gifInga Kalna as Alcina (Riga) [Photo courtesy of the artist]

This was particularly true of Vesselina Kassarova who sang Ruggiero, Alcina’s love interest. Kassarova seemed to be on better form than I have heard recently, with a brilliant upper voice and lovely dark lower register. The drawback seemed to be that these two registers were not always neatly joined; there were occasional alarming gear shifts. But Kassarova knows how to use baroque music for expressive purposes, her notes really meant something. In the early part of the opera, where Ruggerio is under Alcina’s magic influence, her Ruggiero wasn’t a particularly nice person and we saw quite clearly how he was transformed when the magic was removed. Of course, ‘Sta nell’Ircana’ was a great tour de force, but Kassarova was as impressive in Ruggiero’s other arias. I have a confession though, by the end of the evening I was trying not to look at Kassarova as her excessive expressive mugging during her arias was off-putting.

Romina Basso as Bradamante was equally impressive. Whereas Kassarova was playing a man, Basso was playing a woman playing a man as Ruggiero’s fiancée Bradamante is disguised as her brother Ricciardo. Basso had a slightly lighter voice than Kassarova, providing a nice contrast, with a lovely neat way with Bradamante’s passagework. Her technical brilliance was shown off in Vorrei vendicarmi which Minkowski took at a terrific pace. The original singer of the role also specialised in singing male roles and this shows in the strong way Handel that presents her. Bradamante doesn’t get any of the opera’s big show pieces, but Handel gave her some fine music and Basso created a strong, fully rounded character.

Alcina’s sister Morgana is the soubrette role. For much of the opera she plays with love, discarding Oronte (Benjamin Bruns) when Ricciardo (Basso’s Bradamente in disguise) comes along; then at the end, returning to Oronte with a glorious outpouring of grief in ‘Credete al mio dolore’. Veronica Cangemi was a bit serious in the earlier parts of the opera, underplaying the soubrette; there was a danger of her being too like Alcina. There were times when her upper register seemed a little wayward, but Cangemi is a highly musical singer and her account of ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, which closes Act 1, was simply brilliant.

Oronte isn’t a huge part, but it is an important one dramatically; in fact the role was written for the 21 year old John Beard who would go on to inspire some of the major tenor roles in Handel’s oratorios. In his first aria I thought that Benjamin Bruns, as Oronte, had a voice which was too big, rather too modern and forward placed for the role. But he settled in nicely and gave a beautifully shaded account of Oronte’s final aria, ‘Un momento di contento’.

The role of Oberto was a late addition to the opera. Handel’s source for the libretto (Broschi’s L’Isola di Alcina) didn’t have the role in at all. Oberto was specifically added for the boy soprano William Savage. Savage would carry on singing for Handel as an adult, but his baritone voice does not seem to have been as impressive as his treble one. Handel created 3 simple, direct arias for the character, all lightly accompanied. Usually the role is sung by a female soprano, but Minkowski used a boy treble, Shintaro Nakajima, from the Vienna Boys Choir. Nakajima was immensely impressive as Oberto, singing Handel’s music fluently and with an unaffected directness. He had a very self-possessed stage presence and was seriously in danger of stealing the show.

Ruggiero’s tutor, Melisso, is a role which Handel reduced when writing the opera, so that the character gets only 1 aria. Baritone Luca Tinttoto accounted himself well in the aria and made you wish he’d been given more to do.

When Handel wrote Teseo, based on a French tragedie lyrique there are indications that he intended to create a mixture of dance and singing in the manner of the French opera, but economics seems to have put paid to this. In Alcina he had Marie Salle and her dance troupe available, so that dance plays a big part in the opera, though is often cut in modern performance. Minkowski gave us all the dances, so that Act 2, after Alcina’s ‘Ombre pallide’ we get dances for ‘divers specters’. Then at the end of Act 3, there are dances for the men who had been turned into stones by Alcina. Here also, the soloists joined in with the singers of the chorus as would have happened in Handel’s day.

Les Musiciens du Louvre — Grenoble were present in strength, with 32 strings and triple woodwind. It was heartening to hear this great music played by stylishly such a large body of players. There were plenty of fine solo moments, including obbligato violin and cello

Minkowski has been conducting Handel with his ensemble for many years and I enjoy his way with the music. His performances seem to more direct, lacking the French accent of some of his colleagues. Speeds were sometimes brisk and the recitatives flowed nicely, but he never went beyond his singers technical abilities and the opera never felt rushed.

In an ideal world, we would have been able to experience Adrian Noble’s staging of the opera in the Barbican Theatre. But Minkowski and his ensemble gave such a fluently dramatic and involving account of Alcina that you hardly noticed the lack of a staging.

Robert Hugill

Handel’s Alcina is the first of a major series of baroque operas at the Barbican Centre, London. All feature specialist European baroque orchestras and major singers. Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso will appear on 26th March 2011 with Lemieux, Larmore, Jaroussky, Stotijn, Cangemi, Basso and Senn. (Ensemble Matheus/Spinosi). Handel’s Ariodante follows on 25th May with DiDonato, Gauvin, Phan, Lemieux, and others (Il complesso barocco/Curtis) For more details please see the Barbican website.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):