17 Feb 2013
Stuttgart: Too Hot to Handel
With its staging of Alcina, Stuttgart Opera seems to set out to prove that George Friedrich Handel can be all ‘sexypants.’
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
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As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
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As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
With its staging of Alcina, Stuttgart Opera seems to set out to prove that George Friedrich Handel can be all ‘sexypants.’
To that end, directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito have gotten their willing cast to rather uninhibitedly caress, nuzzle, hug, stroke and roll around on occasion in various combinations, and even include strong impressions that a patriarchal pederast is sodomizing two of the boys. To paraphrase a Bacharach title song for a Michael Caine film: “What’s it all about, Alcina?”
And like the plot of Alfie, the story here seemed to be reduced to thoughtless couplings, self-gratification, and a modicum of come-uppance. But is that enough? The complex, dense plot features a sorceress (Alcina) and her long-suffering-also-a-sorceress-sister (Morgana); a knight (Ruggiero) looking for his beloved but who gets side-tracked/bewitched by the titular witch; a boy (Oronte) looking for his long lost father (Astolfo); the sister’s jilted lover (Oberto), and a cross-dressing woman (Bradamante) who is impersonating her own brother to find her lover Ruggiero who now loves Alcina. Throw in the hero’s former tutor (Melisso) and the fact that two of the ‘men’ are sung by women (not counting the cross-dresser) and you get some idea of the challenges to comprehension of the plotting.
What is needed in the direction and visual presentation is utter clarity to lead us through the tale’s rich character relationships. Alas, what we got was confusing blocking and unmotivated stage business that led us ever further from honest confrontations and down a garden path to bewilderment. As we gave up on trying to understand who was wanting what from whom (and why), the piece was reduced to a string of stand-alone Da Capo arias that seemed to exist outside the drama rather than driving it.
The sense of sameness was not helped by staging choices that kept getting re-cycled like hugging the walls, languishing on the floor, taking off clothes, and the like. Nor was designer Anna Viebrock’s unit setting evocative or particularly attractive. It consisted of a decaying drawing room box set with aging gold damask wallpaper and a single double door up left.
Upstage, a giant, empty gilt frame dominated the space, suggesting at times a mirror, at others a portal to the psyche. In the up right corner was a pile of, well, junk: pieces of swords, battered musical instruments, an old drawing room chair, some pottery, some armor. These got passed around, kicked around, and thrown around with regularity if without much reason.
Behind the frame, a treadmill sometimes bore a performer across from right to disappear left, and the wallpapered backdrop tracked to and fro revealing some wall accessories like a coat rack, wall lamp or . . .shhhhh. . .a secret door. Ooooh. A secret door. A lurking old man (shhhh, it’s Astolfo) peeked through at several times to inject a Fear Factor. Or at least an Ick Factor. At other times, characters might appear waltzing together, or commiserating, or well, just observing. A real problem with this floor plan is there are only two ways into the playing space: either through the door, or over the frame from the upstage Time Out Room.
Too, the overall pace was not helped by limiting the evening to one intermission, and that after Act Two, Scene Three, making the second ‘sit’ much longer than the first. ‘Act Three’ also experienced three complete blackouts, one after Alcina is shot dead (yes, shot) which deflated the momentum at a time the piece could ill afford it.
Ms. Vriebock’s modern day costumes only hit the mark with her elegant black gowns for Alcina. The real men looked dapper enough in their suits; well that is until Oronte did a strip tease during his aria, sitting on a step in his briefs and kicking up his (bare) feet like Esther Williams about to go under water. The same male attire did not serve the men-women well, making the lanky, pony-tailed, bespectacled Bradamante look like Olive Oyl in drag; and accenting, not hiding all of Ruggiero’s womanly assets. Hard to suspend our disbelief when your ‘hero’ has willfully undisguised child-bearing hips.
Musically, Stuttgart Opera has fielded a top notch team of soloists, a superb group of instrumentalists, and a stylish and stylistically savvy conductor who was in joyous command of his resources. From the downbeat of the overture the pit orchestra promised both effervescent delights and characterful illumination. They could not have been bettered, and Michael Groß’s conscientious cello work was the stand-out among equals.
Netta Or has all the right stuff to sing an assured Alcina: a pointed and pliable soprano, a winning way of caressing a melting phrase, and a sound technique allowing her to deliver her every varied musical intention. Ms. Or is also possessed of a lovely, poised stage presence; in short, she has the requisite “star quality.”
In spite of being handicapped by her unhelpful costume and rather short stature (or perhaps because of it?), Diana Haller sang the living snot out of Ruggiero. Ms. Haller, has a nice edge to her essentially lyric mezzo, and she zings out coloratura like Sosa hitting it out of the ballpark. Her acting is committed and her characterization is well considered. In addition to the impressive vocal fireworks, Diana could also turn it all inward and touch our hearts with deeply felt moments of repose and introspection.
As Bradamante, Marina Prudenskaya’s softer-grained, mellower tone was a nice complement to Ruggiero’s more incisive production. Ms. Prudenskaya also rose above her costume limitations to etch a believably desperate, and vocally secure performance. And when she was asked, twice, to tear open her white dress shirt to reveal a pink camisole (“I’m a girl, get it, a girl?”) she performed the stage business with conviction.
As Oronte, Stanley Jackson proved to be not only a willing collaborator in shedding his clothes, but managed to perform all that silliness while regaling us with poised singing of real distinction. Mr. Jackson has a clear, forward-placed tenor that offers much pleasure, and he proves to be an enormously engaging performer. He is equaled by the statuesque Morgana, strongly sung by Ana Durlovski. Her liquid soprano almost defines the word “silvery” and her tireless flights above the staff were ravishingly accurate.
Opera Studio Syliva Rena Ziegler was a believably boyish Oberto. If the young Ms. Ziegler’s assured dispatch of her tricky arias is any proof, the Studio is turning out exciting artists of great promise. Michael Ebbeke sang with refinement as Melisso, although his thuggish, hit man characterization was in odds with his smooth bass singing.
Siegfried Laukner was a “bonus” as Astolfo, who was brought in as a presence to tie up the back story of the plot. However, since the entire original tale has been eliminated and re-interpreted for psycho-sexual purposes, really what was the point?
And here is the pity: a superior group of performers was largely wasted by not being able to effectively communicate the sense of Handel’s opera to an audience composed of patrons overwhelmingly unfamiliar with this seldom-performed, knotty work. It’s not that this Alcina is an unprofessional staging. It is just the wrong one.
Cast and production information:
Alcina: Netta Or; Ruggiero, Diana Haller; Morgana, Ana Durlovski; Bradamante: Marina Prudenskaya; Oronte: Stanley Jackson; Melisso: Michael Ebbeke; Oberto: Sylvia Rena Ziegler; Astolfo: Siegfried Laukner; Conductor: Sébastien Rouland; Directors: Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito; Set and Costume Design: Anna Viebrock; Cembalo: Yvon Repérant; Theorbo: Johannes Vogt; Cello: Michael Groß