This production of Handel’s Alcina, directed by Katie Mitchell and conducted by Andrea Marcon, turns upon the complex and many-sided relationship between sand, flasks of bright blue liquid, and a luggage scanner that spits out taxidermy specimens. There is also BDSM.
Today was, as they say, a good day. No barking from the dog; no smog; I went to see Alcina and the ensemble went whole hog.
But enough of that. (Someone was playing Ice-Cube from their car as I was walking home from the subway, and one thing kind of led to another in my head.) I am not sure where to start, this performance was so much fun. Perhaps the obvious. How much do we love Joyce DiDonato? We love her plenty, including her fabulous dress and knee-high boots. I heard some people behind me commenting that they didn’t like her hair. These people are clearly without any taste in haircuts whatsoever. Fauxhawks are AWESOME. (I love writing about opera. I can have crushes and get squealy and indulge my inner fourteen-year-old and just GO ON AND ON IN ALL CAPS ABOUT HOW AWESOME THINGS ARE and I feel not a bit ashamed.)
Ever notice how the king’s Act II aria in Ariodante, “invida sorta avara” / “cruel, envious fate” sounds a lot like Alcina’s “mi restano le lagrime”?
Here is “invida sorta avara,” sung by Matthew Brook:
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?
Basically, I think the problem is that the production is taking too much on itself. It’s trying to do too much.
First of all, there is the set. It is one dilapidated room with a huge frame/mirror in the center. Sometimes characters are on our side of the mirror, sometimes not. On the other side there is a conveyor belt (that we can’t see) that moves characters one way or the other. Sometimes the rear of the set scrolls, Nintendo-style, to reveal additional wall-space, and at one point part of a stairway.
There are also a lot of miscellaneous objects. My favorite object is the French horn. Not the horn in the orchestra: the one on the stage. It first appears at the beginning of Act II, when Melisso gives Ruggiero the magic ring that allows him to see Alcina’s island as it really is. There is a lot of junk lying about in Alcina’s grande salle, and among the clutter is a French horn. The first time Ruggiero picked it up (after Melisso has already plucked it from among the odds and ends in the corner stage right) I half suspected that this was going to be far cleverer than I expected and he and Melisso and Bradamante were somehow going to MacGyver their way off of that island using nothing but a rubber band, a broken sword and a french horn valve.
I enjoyed listening to this. Although I will admit, after what I’ve been up to during the last two weeks I can think of one and only one instance in which I would be willing to listen to any part of Alcina again for at least three months.
There is a term that I hear every so often, mostly from other American opera fans. It is ‘Eurotrash.’
I don’t like this term myself. I think it’s unfair and a little silly. Now, I am not saying that there are not bizarre, ill-conceived and sometimes even pointlessly ‘shocking’ productions of operas in Europe. There are. I think that the problem with the term ‘Eurotrash’ is that it has become a kind of shorthand for ‘that was not what I expected and I didn’t like it.’ It is possible to not like something for good reasons; it is also possible to not like something for fairly stupid reasons.
This Alcina from the Stuttgart Opera has been described as ‘Eurotrash,’ mostly (I suspect) because there is a lot of groping and also because one is left in no doubt as to the shapeliness of Catherine Naglestad’s breasts. There is nothing wrong, of course, with either shapeliness or breasts. But it is fair to ask in this instance whether the fact that we get quite an eyeful of Alcina’s is serving any useful artistic purpose.
I watched this again mainly because it was available on the internet and I could. I saw the DVD once before (for a while it was the only DVD of Alcina out there) and although I was not bowled over then I figured, hey — what the hell. Why not? Besides, I have had Alcina on the brain lately.
So, more about Alcina. Again. And Renée Fleming, who has this tendency to turn up fairly often as far as certain Handel roles are concerned. Perhaps some day we should talk about Rodelinda again.
Anyway. Here are two performances of “Mi restano le lagrime.” The first is Fleming, and the second, beginning at 8.18, is Joyce DiDonato.
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.
The ‘play-within-a-play’ conceit that this production uses is actually doing more work than it appears to. The first time I saw the introductory scene that occurs during the overture, my impression was that there was almost too much story going on. The program notes inform us that this is the Duchess of Devonshire (Georgiana Cavendish) and her circle, who are dressing up as the characters in Alcina for the ‘performance’ of the opera. (There are going to be a lot of quotation marks in this post).
My project this weekend is to watch that recent DVD of Alcina again. My critical reactions to things tend to be rather knee-jerk the first time (I’ll tell you a little story sometime about me and not liking Dorothea Roeschmann’s voice the first time I heard it) but the flip side to this is that I have the pleasure of changing my mind later, which is both fun and productive, as far as writing goes.