Pittsburgh Opera presented Handel’s Alcina for the first time in its history Saturday night, with a strong cast and Antony Walker conducting the orchestra – an excellent group of musicians exquisitely augmented by period instruments in the highly skilled hands of players from Chatham Baroque. Originally performed in a prologue and three acts, with incidental ballet music, the version of the opera’s score used for this production is pared to two reasonably condensed acts, or “parts,” as the program states. The opera is effectively directed, and provided with striking costumes and impressive lighting and scenic effects – a combination that provides the singers and orchestra with very engaging surroundings. While the CAPA Theater was reasonably full, lovers of classical singing are strongly encouraged to take advantage of the three performances that remain, because the production is decidedly a winner.
Composed by Handel for his first season at Covent Garden in London, Alcina premiered there on April 16, 1735, then, like his other works in what would later be styled the opera seria genre, disappeared from the boards for the better part of two centuries, with nearly all revivals occurring in the last 50 years or so. It still doesn’t fall into the “standard” category, but as heard last night, the opera’s enthusiastic reception was well merited, and that the company can gather such remarkable vocal talent from its Resident Artist Program adds another demonstration of success to a well-feathered cap.
The plot is of the complicated “lovers in disguise” variety that seems to have been a favorite of 18th century composers and audiences, with a seductive sorceress who turns her conquests into various animals or inanimate objects once she tires of them at the center of the drama. Exactly who adapted the libretto is unknown, but it was taken from Riccardo Broschi’s L’Isola d’Alcina (1728), after Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. That the opera’s genre and original, highly complicated stage directions might explain the work’s lengthy period of obscurity is unfortunate, for the music is of great beauty, and the story manages to have a happy ending for all except the title character. It’s virtually impossible to imagine what such operas sounded like to their initial audiences, however, since composers of the era gave singers ample “wiggle room” to embellish to their hearts’ content.
During the first part of the performance, the players from Chatham Baroque supplied the greater part of the orchestra’s excellence, but as the evening progressed Mr. Walker gave ample evidence of his enthusiasm for the opera, melding the sounds of the instrumentalists into a solid but never obtrusive column of lovely tone better adapted to the acoustics of the theater. Among the visiting musicians, Andrew Fouts made his violin sing in a hypnotically beautiful manner, and the continuo provided by Patricia Halverson on the Viola da Gamba and Scott Pauley on the Theorbo was conspicuously excellent, while Mark Trawka, the company’s chorus master, manned the harpsichord effectively. The orchestra and conductor were heartily applauded at the conclusion, and deservedly so.
The vocal talent on the stage was little short of astonishing. Soprano Natasha Wilson, as Alcina’s sister Morgana, poured out a glorious display of her abilities, and made the most of the character’s approach to comic relief. That she is a gifted singer was obvious from her first appearance with the company in the autumn, but Handel’s music allows her to shine far more brightly than the part of Rosalba in Florencia en el Amazons could have led one to expect. She sings with much brilliancy and possesses the stamina possible only to vocalists with the most polished of techniques. Bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman, always an impressive singing actor, was heard to excellent advantage as Melisso, the former tutor of Ruggiero. That character, a “pants role,” was in the hands of Antonia Botti-Lodovico, the versatile mezzo-soprano. In a spot or two the music seemed a little low for her comfort zone, but she is a consummate artist who always makes an excellent impression in anything she does.
As Oronte, Morgana’s love interest, tenor Angel Romero made a favorable first impression, antlers and all, despite a brief sprint past the orchestra. His voice seemed more pleasing and at ease in the straight forward parts of the score, and his enunciation of the text was impeccable; but it’s easy to imagine that the florid flight the character takes would try the nerves of any singer making a debut. Baritone Yazid Gray was another newcomer, seen throughout as a masked “Attendant,” and heard but briefly in the final ensemble as a conquest of Alcina freed when her spells are broken. Former Resident Artist Laurel Semerdjian returned as Bradamante, Ruggiero’s betrothed (disguised as a man). As always, she looked as if she stepped out of an oil painting, and sang with a velvety mezzo-soprano capable of richly burnished contralto tones. The part isn’t generous in solo opportunities, but she made the
most of them and added greatly to the duets and ensemble numbers.
Caitlin Gotimer, in the title role, delivered an object lesson on the art of classical singing. Exquisitely costumed and comporting herself in a manner befitting a mysterious sorceress, she seemed undaunted by the demands of the role, negotiating the most intricate ornamentations and sustained, high-flung passages with equal agility. This soprano has yet to disappoint in a remarkable variety of roles, but last night she topped all past accomplishments, displaying a voice of truly heroic proportions – seemingly with the greatest of ease, but the amount of talent and study involved in creating such a impression boggles the mind.
Three repetitions of Alcina remain, and the production is of an excellence truly deserving of capacity audiences. For tickets, additional photography, a full synopsis and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
The Artistic Team for Alcina –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Matthew Haney; Set Designer, Sarah Delaney Boyle; Costume Designer, Jason Bray; Lighting Designer, Nate Wheatly; Wig & Make-up Designer, Nicole Pagano; Head of Music; Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight
David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.
Categories: Archived Reviews