Saturday, 11 October 2014

Handel's Alcina with DiDonato and Coote

Joyce DiDonato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina at the Barbican with the English Concert - photo credit MARK ALLAN/BARBICAN
Joyce Di Donato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina
with Harry Bicket and the English Concert
photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Handel Alcina; DiDonato, Coote, English Concert, Bickett; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 10 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Full of stars and hot on drama, finely involving account of Handel's masterpiece

To say that the English Concert's performance of Handel's Alcina at the Barbican on 10 October 2014 was hotly anticipated would be an understatement. Sold out for weeks, the performance capitalised on the draw of its two principals Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote and generated the sort of buzz which the work did at its premiere. This, and the strength of  the casting, reflected the distance we have travelled in the last 30 years in making Handel opera mainstream. The casting also recognised that Alcina isn't strictly a star vehicle, the performance only works if all the principals are strong. And what was impressive was that we had a strong team, none of whom was a baroque music specialist. Alcina was sung by Joyce DiDonato, Ruggiero by Alice Coote, Morgana by Anna Christy, Bradamante by Christine Rice, Oronte by Ben Johnson, Melisso by Wojtek Gierlach and Oberto by Anna Devin, with the English Concert directed from the harpsichord by Harry Bicket.

This was a concert performance and the singers were using scores, but it certainly wasn't a score bound performance, all the singers projected drama as if they were in the opera house. Someone had thought about the dramaturgy, there were entrances and exits and more importantly the performers reacted to each other. Baroque opera does not need a lot of staging to make it work, and here Alcina received just enough. It helped that the cast were all extremely vivid performers; it wasn't just Joyce DiDonato's Alcina who prowled round the stage, and she and Alice Coote made their first entrance entwined like the lovers that their characters are.

Bicket and the English Concert gave a sparking account of the overture, brisk but not too rushed with a nice crispness. My main gripe was that there was only one harpsichord, played by Bicket himself, along with a theorbo and for me the continuo just wasn't strong enough.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have spotted that I have not mentioned any chorus. Handel wrote Alcina in 1735 for the theatre at Covent Garden where his rather reduced company had moved after the creation of the rival Opera of the Nobility. To the not-inconsiderable draw of the castrato Carestini, Handel was able to add a dance troupe and a small chorus. Alcina has short choruses and dances woven into its texture in a way which few other Handel operas have. Here, the choruses were sung by four of the soloists (Anna Devin, Christine Rice, Ben Johnson and Wojtek Gierlach), with the entire cast singing the very final sequence when Alcina's victims come alive again.

Though the performance was billed as part of the Joyce DiDonato Artist Spotlight, strictly speaking the leading role in the opera is Ruggiero. To Handel's audience it was the castrato who had primacy and Handel ensured this. When he adjusted the libretto (which was originally written for the castrato Farinelli's brother, the composer Riccardo Broschi), he altered the number of arias that each of the principals gets. So that Ruggiero has eight, Alcina has six, and all the others far fewer. But it is Alcina who dominates the opera, and was clearly the character about whom Handel felt strongest. It is she who gets the most interesting range of arias.

Handel was also adept at using the resources available; the role of Oronte was written for a young 21 year old tenor, John Beard, who would go on to create some of Handel's greatest tenor roles in oratorio. And the character of the boy Oberto was introduced (he's not in the original), to provide a role for the boy treble, William Savage.

DiDonato was dressed in a Vivienne Westwood creation that was both dramatic and imaginative; like a previous Westwood dress for DiDonato, this one was highly constructed and in each act she appeared with the piece in a different configuration. The dress certainly ensured that DiDonato's Alcina drew our eye in the way the sorceress ought. Strictly, Alcina is the villain but clearly Handel had sympathy with her and the interest in the role is how she deals with rejection in love and the waning of her powers. In act one, with Alcina happily in love, I missed the limpidness in the upper register and fluid flexibility. DiDonato's zwischfach mezzo-soprano gave the simpler passages a highly sculpted quality (which matched the visuals). Everything was perfectly done, but DiDonato's Alcina had a very distinctive tang to it.

But when the going got tough, DiDonato really showed us her mettle. Ah! mio cor was stunning. But though the performance was very moving, I was aware that as a performer DiDonato feels the need to do something expressive with every note. It is not a style that everyone will like, but it is the way she is. If you listen to DiDonato in Handel, that is what you get. Alcina gets to close Act two with her striking scene where she tries and fails to raise the supernatural powers and here having and artist of DiDonato's character counted as she combined a feel for the music with a strong dramatic sense. Yes, the passagework was vividly done, but it meant something. This continued in the last act where Alcina lets rip with Ma quanto tornerai, but the aria reflects how conflicted the character has now become, something DiDonato projected.

Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina at the Barbican with the English Concert - photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina
photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
There was a strong interaction between DiDonato's Alcina and Alice Coote's Ruggiero, they projected a believable relationship. The roles that Handel wrote for Carestini clearly suite the range of Coote's voice and she sings them superbly, with everything within the range of the voice. There was never any sense in the da capos of the singer pushing the vocal line into more familiar territory, as can happen, and Coote's ornamentation was all nicely within the compass of the arias and generally a filling in and elaboration. That said Coote is also, like DiDonato, a very distinctive singer in this repertoire and projects a very personal way with the Handelian vocal line, one which for me echoes singers of the past like Janet Baker (which is no bad thing).

Ruggiero is rather passive for much of the opera. Yes, in Act three Coote did bring the house down with the showpiece Sta nell'ircana with its wonderful pair of horns (but I'd worry about a Ruggiero who wasn't able to do that). Where Coote counted was in the earlier acts, where she brought a great sense of character to Ruggiero's arias giving us the feel of a rather nice but dim hero in love, and struggling with it. Coote is another singer who 'does something' with the vocal line but again she is very expressive with it and I can listen to hear brand of Handel all day.

Joyce DiDonato and Anna Christy in Act 2 of Handel's Alcina at the Barbican with the English Concert - photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato and Anna Christy in Act 2 of Handel's Alcina
photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Whilst the role of Morgana only gets four arias, Handel clearly intended the role to balance that of Alcina and Morgana has the biggest showpiece in Act one,  the aria Tornami a vagheggiar. And here it was Anna Christy who brought the house down. Her performance was technically brilliant but also very characterful, no mean feat in such complex music. Throughout the opera, Christy projected her sheer delight in the character. Morgana is the most complex character in the opera, she is one of Handel's glorious coquettes. This is a line which can be traced through Poppea in Agrippina, Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare and Atalanta in Serse, and all delight. Here Christy delighted, as she displayed Morgana's complexity and delightful charm, combined with fine technical poise. Her bright, yet warm soprano was nicely contrasted to Coote and DiDonato's voices which helped the contrasts in the opera. I might add that Christy was very visibly pregnant (a wrinkle which would add spice to the plot indeed!).

Bradamente, who spends most of the opera disguised as a man, was written originally for a singer who specialised in playing men. She must have also had a very strong technique, her first two arias both have incredibly fast passagework which Christine Rice rendered with a lovely vividness and evenness. She brought a great sense of personality to the character, I loved her touches of bewilderment in the opening scene when Bradamante realises that, as a man, Morgana is in love with him! Rice, throughout, projected a very strong sense of character and interaction with the other singers.

Morgana's rejected love interest is Oronte, sung by tenor Ben Johnson. He displayed a fine vigorous tenor voice which very much suited the music. We mustn't forget that the original Oronte was a very robust singer. But Johnson combined robustness with a fine technique and a lovely feeling for Oronte's bewilderment as his lover rejects him. Perhaps things got a little too laboured in his act two aria, but he recovered in act three.

There was no sense of Anna Devin being boyish as Oberto, after all she is singing Morgana in this opera with the Russian National Orchestra. Oberto's first two arias are both relatively simple and effective, and both were nicely projected by Devin. She held our attention in a role which is not dramatically relevant and relies on the singer's personality. Then in the Act three aria she let rip in mesmerising fashion.

Wojtek Gierlach only got one aria as Melisso, but he sang this with vigorous commitment and throughout the opera was vividly characterful in his recitative.

Cast of Handel's Alcina - photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Cast of Handel's Alcina - photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Throughout we had some lovely playing from the English Concert, with some glorious solo moments including a couple of cadenzas at the end of arias. The smaller scale, continuo arias were all sensitively played, and in the larger scale pieces there were many instrumental moments to treasure. The textures of Handel's combinations of voice with string figuration, such is in Ruggiero's Act two Il mio tresor, were magically done.

This was a finely involving performance. Given uncut, with two intervals, it lasted nearly four hours but never felt long. Despite the starry names, this felt like an ensemble piece with everyone pulling the drama though of course it was DiDonato's Alcina who dominated as she rightly should.

The performance was the first on a tour, which continues: Sunday, 12 October 2014, Palacio de Congresos Y Auditorio de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain; Tuesday, 14 October 2014, Auditorio Nacional de Musica, Madrid, Spain; Friday, 17 October 2014, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria; Monday, 20 October 2014, Theatre des Champs Elysees, Paris, France; Sunday, 26 October 2014, Carnegie Hall, New York, US.

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