Alcina (last time, I promise)

The best parts of Alcina, to my mind, are the parts where the characters are disillusioned, deceived, lying or regretting/worrying about things that are not or might not be real. One can argue quite reasonably that this is an opera about love; I think the claim can also be made that this is an opera about lies.

And the music does not come down one hundred percent on the side of truth. The idea that music was a kind of sweet deception, sometimes a dangerously sweet deception, was a truism in Handel’s day. I mean, it’s there – but it isn’t, right? It makes you feel things, but sometimes it’s not at all clear why. Words like chant, chanson and enchantment are all related to one another; the idea clearly goes back even further than the eighteenth century. (The analytical move made in the previous sentence operates more smoothly in Romance languages — and the bits of English, like chant and enchant, that derive from French — than it does in say, German, but since this opera is in Italian I suspect I am going to get away with it.)

Some of the most haunting music in Alcina is about lies and illusions. ‘Verdi prati,’ for example. There is also Ruggiero’s aria ‘mio bel tesoro’ from Act II, which is one of the parts of this opera that I always forget how much I like. I think it’s the two recorders. Ever notice how recorders tend to turn up in baroque operas at fairly well-defined times? It’s death, or it’s love/death/sex, or it’s ‘someone’s getting fucked with’. Here it’s the last. The recorders double and echo Ruggiero’s melodic line – just as Ruggiero is being double with Alcina.

And it may be that Handel is messing with us a little bit. My attention never flagged during this production of Alcina. The tension is never high, but it’s always there. The music is what is holding all this together, and the fact that music is holding together this rather creaky story about a gal with a fragile urn and some serious control issues vis-a-vis personal relationships — this is Handel showing us how clever he actually is.

5 thoughts on “Alcina (last time, I promise)

  1. i was thinking a bit about your last alcina post, the fact that i somehow never quite paid attention to the fine prints in the leaflet, but i think the end of this post said it: everything is in the music. the music _is_ the piece. i wonder if one hears it even more as one gets older, for example, am not sure if this music would have swept me off my feet had i attended it live 10 years ago. quite coincidentally, i was also listening to this same aria, “mio bel tisoro”, just earlier and couldn’t help but hearing so clearly the bitter lies, being flanked by the recorders for enhancement.
    Well, if they ever re stage it with the same singers, i’d highly recommend everyone to fly over and hear it live :-). there are other arias that also hit me hard including “ama sospira”, “un momento di contento”, “Tra speme e timore mi palpita il core”, “Credete al mio dolore”, some of which deals with pure joy, loss, uncertainty, etc.

    Actually the one rare aria which I just failed to get is “Verdi Prati” . They pick an interesting point to have intermission, just before the aria. I think it breaks the flow so much i just couldn’t figure out what Verdi Prati is about. may be i should read the libretto carefully, or perhaps you could tell me what it implies for you?

    regarding the settings, i always thought it fits perfectly where the “servants” were Alcina’s servants on the islands…

    I have babbled about it before, but one of the disadvantages of a DVD is that it picks for you what it thinks you should see, or rather what it wants you to focus on, instead of what you can see. It’s like seeing the sunset with your own eyes vs seeing a picture zoomed into the sun, the feeling can’t be compared due to the missing pieces :-). Also, you might have known already (i lamented about it a lot too) but the recording for the DVD is not as good as the radio recording.. there’s an upload the whole audio recording of the radio broadcast here in case you want to check out. i just can’t figure out why they don’t use the radio recording for the DVD, as the crowd at the line in Wien was buzzing about the idea the whole nov20’10 evening. Anyhow, that recording of “ah mio cor” left me paralyzed for quite a while :-).

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    1. You’re right about DVDs. There’s an added layer in there between the performance and the audience — someone has decided what camera angles to use, how to frame the shots, and so on. When one is seeing the production live on stage, there’s more openness to it. The audience members can focus in on whatever they want.

      Ah, ‘verdi prati’. This is actually one of my favorite arias ever. The first time I heard it I didn’t know what it was about. I was listening to a really old (1960s) recording of Alcina with Joan Sutherland as Alcina and Teresa Berganza as Ruggiero and I was just blown away by the melody (and Berganza’s singing of it.) There’s just this ache of regret and beauty in it. The words are about how the green fields of Alcina’s island will soon lose their beauty – I read it as both part of the story and a meditation on mortality and the inevitable decay of beauty with time.

      Which may be why it affects me even more now. There is a wistfulness about this opera at times which I think tends to hit me harder the older I get. (I’m 32).

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  2. and if I may add another note, it seems to me that this production does uncover dimensions of this opera by no means immediately evident, a complexity the music does bear out as performed here. I confess that the more I listen to and watch this, the more I am captivated. (But maybe you have to be 42 for that?)

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