Alcina: Bewitched but unbothered

ANJA HARTEROS.  She’s the reason why you should see this Alcina.  The Wiener Staatsoper’s Baroque experiment is good enough, but only the resplendent Harteros and the fab Les Musiciens de Louvre in the pit elevate it above the blandly pretty.  Adrian Noble’s production is incoherent, but all told not really that bad.  The whole of this one is surprisingly better than most of its parts.  I think we can mostly credit Handel and Harteros for that.

Handel, Alcina.  Wiener Staatsoper, 14/11/10.  New production premiere directed by Adrian Noble with sets and costumes by Anthony Ward, lights by Jean Kalman, choreography by Sue Lefton.  Les Musiciens de Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski  with Anja Harteros (Alcina), Vesselina Kasarova (Ruggiero), Veronica Cangemi (Morgana), Kristina Hammarström (Bradamante), Shintaro Nakajima (Oberto), Benjamin Bruns (Oronte), Adam Plachetka (Melisso).

Based on Adrian Noble’s pre-premiere ramblings, I expected his production to be rather convoluted.  It is not.  It has a frame narrative: the drama of Alcina is being performed by 18th-century British aristocrats for their, heh, peers.   But the 18th-century characters do not have identities separate from their characters in Alcina, so it never gets very complicated.  (Or interesting.  However, considering how tricky these theater-in-theater productions are to pull off, maybe it’s best left half-baked.)  All the concept means is that we are in an 18th-century salon with some 18th-century audience members wandering in and out (you can’t see them in any of the pictures I could find, sorry).  They tend to leave for the most intimate moments, so they don’t get in the way, which doesn’t make much logical sense.  It indicates how seriously Noble takes this frame–not very.

The set is a stately, luxuriously appointed room whose back wall opens up to reveal a green field.  It’s such a direct rip-off of Robert Carsen’s Garnier/La Scala Alcina that it’s not even funny.  (I couldn’t find a good picture of the whole Staatsoper set, unfortunately, but trust me here.  Here is the Carsen.  I will add a photo comparison if I can come up with one.)  But it’s very pretty, the design is elaborate and eye-catching with many bright and shiny colors.  The breaking of Alcina’s enchantments is equated with a dark, star-filled sky, absent her male admirers.  Bradamante and Melisso cutely arrive on the island via hot air balloon.  We get touches of Eastern exoticism in Ruggiero’s silk vest and Alcina’s fringed umbrellas.  The dance interludes, diverting enough, feature Alcina’s spirits, her “ombre pallide,” generically Eastern (yet pale) men.  Oberto’s father in the form of a lion is a charmingly homespun effect.

But mostly the costumes reveal that we are in that well-known theatrical era familiar from many productions of Mozart, Molière, and Bartlett Sher’s Met Barbiere di Siviglia: the Slutty 18th Century.  This mythic era, most often explored by straight male directors, is just like the regular 18th century except with more corsets and cleavage.  Women habitually wear only their underclothes in public.  Dresses mysteriously fall off mid-aria, never to be recovered.  This afflicts soubrettes most frequently, but any woman is vulnerable.  See also Slutty Early 19th Century, AKA Anna Netrebko in the Met’s Don Pasquale.  This setting has been brought to you by the Male Gaze.

I don’t think that Noble has a single thing to say about Alcina, about the lady’s magic or her society.  His much-vaunted Duchess of Devonshire (see his notes linked above) is alluded to in (YES!) a giant hat at the very beginning of the opera, but otherwise the 18th-century elements are purely aesthetic.  The frame merely adds an alienation effect, which makes me suspect that Noble doesn’t really trust the libretto to work when taken seriously on its own terms.  I think this is a shame, and it helps make this a rather emotionally shallow production.  We end with a collective dance that is reminiscent of Twelfth Night.  (Or any chaconne ending of an earlier Baroque opera.)  Just another evening’s entertainment, it raineth every day, etc.

But while it never gets below the surface of the work, this is actually a nice evening.  It rarely drags through its four hour running time, which is no small achievement.  The Personenregie of each individual number is mostly good, the plot is dealt with clearly and straightforwardly.  The blocking is naturalistic with no coloratura choreography or other Sellers/McVicars/etc. whimsy.  There are moments of stillness when it’s needed, such as Alcina’s “Ah mio cor,” and more elaborate stagings when needed, such as Ruggiero’s “Sta nell’ircana pietrosa tana.”  It doesn’t pack much of an emotional punch and is very generic, but it works.

The inclusion of Les Musiciens de Louvre in the pit was the production’s big experiment.  Media accounts before the premiere fretted about whether a Baroque opera would work in the Staatsoper acoustic.  While it’s not ideal, it is more than satisfactory.  The orchestra here is very large for Handel, around 50 people.  I wonder if they could have gotten away with less without sounding skimpy, this group fills the theater nicely but sounds a little too big for the music.  The contrast between continuo and full orchestra ritornello was jarring.  But the orchestra sounds great, crisp and precise and nimble.  They use vibrato tastefully, particularly the soloists.  I liked the inclusion of the obligato instrumental soloists onstage, which gives the sound a wonderful intimate quality and liveness.  Marc Minkowski conducted with quick but never excessive tempos, lovely phrasing in the dance movements, and good coordination.  Vocal ornamentation was similarly middle-of-the-road, tasteful and idiomatic.  Overall, it’s a good compromise between big opera house music and period practice.

Anja Harteros is a magnificent singer, with an incredibly rich and complicated sound that she perfectly colors to each phrase.  I haven’t heard her in a few years and had forgotten how good she is.  Everything in her performances just fits together vocally and theatrically in a way few singers manage.  Her voice is large for Handel, but while I’m sure there are more virtuosic singers of “Ombra pallide,” she can, well, handle all the role’s demands in a gratifyingly large-scale way.  She is a strong presence as Alcina, both powerful and privately vulnerable.  (And her tallness helps her, made even more notable by an extremely tall wig.)  Her “Ah! mio cor” was a tour de force of both voice and acting, going from despair to violence to resignation.  I think she could be devastating given a better production, but the fineness of her singing is a considerable reward in itself.

Vesselina Kasarova confuses me, though she’s very popular here.  Her sound is certainly unique, but it’s very uneven.  She sounds like different singers in different registers, from hollow, throaty lower notes to an iffy middle register to more powerful and focused higher notes, and her phrases are inevitably broken up into segments.  Her coloratura is fast but more aspiration than note.  Her Ruggiero was suitably impetuous and heroic, and she had a few moments, notably a very expressive “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto.”

The standout in the smaller roles was Kristina Hammerstörm’s impeccably sung Bradamante, with all the vocal evenness Kasarova lacked.  Veronica Cangemi (center in picture, right) does not have the vocal freshness that would be ideal for Morgana, and got off to a rough start in “O s’apre al riso,” scooping towards the high notes and mostly missing, but her richer soprano voice was rewarding in “Ama, sospira,” and her “Tornami al vagheggiar” accomplished.  Vienna Boys’ Choir member Shintaro Nakajima was a small wonder as Oberto.  I usually can’t stand little kids singing, but this boy was amazing, singing all three (!) difficult arias with confidence, accuracy, and lovely clear tone.  Benjamin Bruns was fine as Oronte, Adam Platcheka very good as Melisso (both are ensemble members).

Intendant Dominique Meyer can continue to breathe easy, there were enthusiastic cheers at the end for the singers and orchestra, and moderate ones for the production team.  No booing.  His real test will come next month with a new Don Giovanni, a considerably riskier endeavor.

Another note: the orchestra was rehearsing in the hall up until the last second, delaying the standing room admittance considerably.  We could hear them as we waited, eventually Meyer emerged from the theater (and said hello).  We were let in shortly afterwards with only 20 minutes before the starting time.  I tied my scarf in the front of Parterre standing room and then got out of the theater, to the Würstelstand, ate a Wurst, ran back to the opera house, through the coat check, through the WC line, bought a program, and back to my scarf.  All in under 15 minutes, with five minutes to spare before the start of the opera.  I impressed myself, at least.  My stomach wasn’t so happy about it, but four hours of Handel opera while hungry would have been worse.

Next: I wandered around during intermission in the hopes of running into Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  I failed, but I’ll be seeing him in Rigoletto on Tuesday.

I’m sorry the photos I have here are so non-illustrative, I will try to find some better ones.  I was strangely lucky with the bows photos this time, here are a few:

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  1. It dragged excruciatingly in concert in Paris but was (almost) worth it because of Harteros (who looks quite fetching in that costume). The voice probably is a tad too large for Handel but for my taste its always better to err on the side of excessive size that scrawniness (applicable primarily for Mozart but adaptable to Handel, I suppose). This assumes of course the the inherent quality of the vocal material and technical accomplishment and Harteros has that in spades. I'll take an ultra hight quality Elsa in this repertoire any day.

  2. LOL Slutty 18th Century. They probably did their research at the Halloween costume shop, with examples like "Sexy Marie Antoinette."