Why does Alcina sing “Ah, mio cor!”?

Someone googled this question the other day and ended up here. It caught my attention because I saw it and thought, well, of course Alcina sings “ah, mio cor” because — wait, why does she?

It is one of those questions that can operate on several levels. Obviously in one sense Alcina sings “Ah, mio cor” because that is what is in the score. If she wants to be Alcina, she has to sing that. You can only skip a certain number of arias before you cease to be performing a production of Alcina.

But this is not a post about picky philosophical distinctions between performing Alcina and not performing Alcina or not quite performing Alcina. I could do that and we could probably have a pretty good time figuring out at precisely what point one can not be said to be performing Alcina in any meaningful way, but there are limits to the usefulness of that kind of exercise.

Why does Alcina sing “Ah, mio cor”?

“Ah, mio cor” is from the second act of the opera. Bradamante and Melisso have broken the spell on Ruggiero and they now plan to escape from Alcina’s island. Ruggiero has placated Alcina with duplicitous professions of love. He claims to be going hunting, and he and the others make their escape. Oronte has just informed Alcina that she has been betrayed.

This is one of those cases where I wish I knew more about music theory. Operas have musical structure as well as dramatic structure — e.g. I am told that in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde there are chord progressions that are begun in the first act that are not resolved until the third. This is the kind of thing which is pretty much guaranteed to escape me. Then again, Wagner operas are through-composed, which tends not to be true of baroque opera.

Anyhow. Here is “Ah, mio cor!”

The first version is DiDonato with Il Complesso Barocco. The orchestral playing here is very sharp and pointed in the introductory section – Il Complesso Barocco gives us these wonderful little acerbic darts of sound. Then we get the first phrase from Alcina, which hangs in the air for a moment before the rhythmic pattern in the strings and continuo returns underneath the vocal line, with the violins moving back and forth between interaction with the voice part and returning to the rhythm. The drama gets a little wilder in the B section as Alcina reasserts her power as queen/sorceress. And given who we are dealing with here, we of course get wonderfully expressive ornamentation in the repeat of the A section. This may be just me, but when I hear DiDonato’s version of this, Alcina reminds me of Vitellia, in the sense that both are sometimes rather self-conscious performers of their own emotions.

And then there is the second version, performed by Joan Sutherland. I had not listened to this recording in ages, and I’m glad I picked it up again. The introduction is magical, with the almost drum-like pizzicato and the shimmer of the harpsichord. This together with Sutherland’s voice gives this performance an otherworldly feel. The orchestral color here is wonderful, for example the harpsichord at 11.27, or the little moment with the solo violin at 12.25. Sutherland has some “Joan Sutherland diction” moments, for example she skips the ‘g’ in ‘regina’ several times, which it seems to me is not playing by the rules — you cannot just leave out consonants whenever you feel like it.

However. This Sutherland version hits at least one nail on the head: Alcina’s strangeness, which I think is probably the answer to the original question. This is an aria that is ostensibly about romantic betrayal – “ah mio cor, tradito sei” / “oh, my heart, you have been betrayed.” But the effect of the music is to remind the listener that it’s not entirely clear who or even what Alcina is. (A point that was made with quite effective creepiness in this production.) There is a persistent eerie tension in this aria between the long floating phrases of the vocal line and that insistent drumming pizzicato. The return of all the strings toward the end, at 16.45, contains the strangeness a little, but the strangeness is still there.