Thursday 26 August 2021

Strong impact: Handel's Alcina from Ensemble OrQuesta at Grimeborn

Handel: Alcina - John Holland-Avery, Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, Maya Wheeler-Colwell - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Handel: Alcina - John Holland-Avery, Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, Maya Wheeler-Colwell - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)

Handel Alcina; Helena May, Laura Fleur, Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, Maya Wheeler-Colwell, Kieran White, Marcio da Silva, Stephanie Gurga, Ensemble OrQuesta; Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Outside

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
With Alcina as office diva, this production was firmly in the 21st century, with a strong musical impact and fine, balanced cast.

On 25 August 2021, Ensemble OrQesta returned to the Grimeborn Festival with a production Handel's Alcina presented at Arcola Outside, the Arcola Theatre's new covered outdoor space. Directed by Marcio da Silva (who was co-music director), the production featured Helen May as Alcina, Laura Fleur as Ruggiero, Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada as Morgana, Maya Wheeler-Colwell as Bradamante, Kieran White as Oronte, John Holland-Avery as Melisso and Poppy Shotts as Oberto with Ethan Udovich as chorus. The opera was accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, Stephanie Gurga (harpsichord, co-music director), Cédric Meyer (archlute / baroque guitar), Edmund Taylor and Kirsty Main (violin), Georgie Davis (viola) and Jacob Garside (cello).

Handel had something of a fondness for what might be termed 'bad girls', his anti-heroines are often vividly etched and this is particularly true of his sorceresses, whether we are talking about his early operas such as Rinaldo and Teseo, or a late masterpiece like Alcina. By the time Handel came to write Alcina he was running his own company and answerable to no-one except his audience (which was rather fickle). This means that his late sequence of operas is rather more varied in style than those of the great period of the Royal Academy of Music when Handel was beholden to a committee of aristocrats who decided what operas to present.

When first presented at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1735 the opera was quite a spectacle including dance sequences for Marie Sallé and her company. But this spectacle should not blind us to the fact that by setting a fantasy libretto, in some ways Handel freed himself from the constraints of opera seria plotting, so that Alcina and Morgana can be amoral and certainly not upright citizens, yet still the focus of our attention. That Handel had great sympathy with human foibles and emotions is what makes his operas so satisfying today, his ability to pull out deep emotions in his characters. So we have immense sympathy for Alcina and Morgana despite their behaviour; the plot, shorn of its Romance trappings, says a lot to us today.

Handel: Alcina - Laura Fleur, Helen May - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Handel: Alcina - Laura Fleur, Helen May - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)

To emphasise this Marcio da Silva set Alcina in a modern office, where Alcina (Helen May) is the reigning diva, using her 'magic' to dominate (mentally, physically and sexually) her staff. And as this is the 21st century, sexuality is fluid so that with all the cross dressing (both mezzo-soprano male roles were played by women as was the boy, Oberto) we were never entirely sure of gender or sexuality. The decision was of great practical sense in that the production needed only simple modern set and costumes. But all was not naturalistic, Da Silva used movement and make-up to heighten the drama, this was a very stylised office.

For me, it did not quite work. I have a preference for more abstract productions where I can draw my own conclusions. Admirably, Da Silva did not significantly adjust the text of the opera to suit his concept so there were moments of creative disjunction between libretto and action. But this is opera, where we must suspend disbelief, and the fact that Da Silva had drawn out strong musical performances from his cast meant that we were held by the magic, and another big plus was that he took the characters seriously and avoided any sense of Alcina simply being a gorgeously costumed romp.

The work was cut (we had a little over two hours of music), besides cutting some arias, several arias were shorn of their repeated A section which had a tendency to leave the aria feeling unfinished, though that might have been Da Silva's intention, and recitative was trimmed particularly in Act Three.

Handel: Alcina - Kieran White, Poppy Shotts - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Handel: Alcina - Kieran White, Poppy Shotts - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)

Once you bought into the concept, Helen May (whom we caught as Climene in Ensemble OrQesta's recent performance of Cavalli's L'egisto, see my review) was a strong Alcina, often dominating the stage. But we never see Alcina do a major piece of magic, by the time she does so in Act Three her powers fail. And May ensured that we felt the range of human emotions behind the mask. Perhaps Alcina was not the most sympathetic of people, but we could certainly understand and empathise with her. May has a strong, vibrant voice which ensured a distinctive timbre to Alcina's music, yet with a nice facility in the passagework. Just occasionally, in the relatively small space of the theatre, an element of wildness crept into the tone, yet this also worked as we became aware of Alcina's life becoming out of control.

As her sister, Morgana, Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada sparkled and dazzled. Seductive and contrary, she was a delightful character and Nic Dhiarmada's performance of Morgana's Act One showpiece 'Tornami a vagheggiar' certainly knocked the socks of Laura Fleur's Ruggiero (and us too!). Morgana is one of those Handel characters who twist and turn, and the way she treated Kieran White's Oronte was appalling, yet with her final aria Nic Dhiarmada drew us in and made us sympathise. The result was a lovely, contrasting pair of performances for the two sisters.

As Alcina's love-interest, the spell-bound Ruggiero is a rather passive character. Laura Fleur (who was Ernestina in British Youth Opera's recent performance of Rossini's L'occasione fa il ladro, see my review) managed to make Ruggiero seem passive but not stupid, which was quite a feat, and her finely musical account of Ruggiero's arias ensured that there was a depth to his character, culminating in his showpiece 'Sta nell’Ircana' which dazzled but was warmly characterful too.

Handel: Alcina - Laura Fleur, Kieran White - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Handel: Alcina - Laura Fleur, Kieran White - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)

Maya Wheeler-Colwell's Bradamante was bewildered, the newbie in this complex and puzzling world, but she/he kept their calm and negotiated the waves with great aplomb and a nice musicality. Wheeler-Colwell gave Bradamante a sense of pliability, softness even, without the quasi-male posturing that sometimes goes with the role. And more importantly, when it was her turn in the spotlight she held our attention with subtle musicality.

Kieran White (who was also in the recent L'egisto) made a sympathetic Oronte, reduced to doing what he was told and rightly puzzled by Morgana's behaviour. White and Nic Dhiarmada made the relationship believable so that during the first two acts it did not simply seem like hi-jinks, which can often be the case. White's tenor has a nice, plangent quality to it which suits the music admirably. As is often the case with smaller Handel roles, you wished he had a greater role in the drama.

John Holland-Avery made a fine, upright Melisso, presenting a great steadying hand on the impulsiveness of the younger generation.

The sub-plot involving the youth Oberto searching for his father was added by Handel at quite a late stage in the planning of the opera, probably when it became apparent that the boy, William Savage, was able to sing the role. As such the whole sub-plot can be cut without too much violence to the drama. Here, Poppy Shotts made Oberto a wonderfully appealing character and managed the trick of making Oberto seem an essential part of the drama.

Directed by Marcio da Silva and Stephanie Gurga (who both doubled on recorder where necessary) the instrumental ensemble might have been small but it certainly was not lacking in punch and drama. From the first notes of the overture this was a strongly characterful account of the score, and whilst more strings would have given a more refulgent tone, there was little lacking in expressivity and drama.

Handel: Alcina - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Handel: Alcina - Ensemble OrQuesta, Grimeborn 2021) - (Photo Andreas Grieger)

Listening and watching the opera in Arcola Outside was an intriguing experience. Like Opera Holland Park, the outside world impinges on the performance but whereas in Holland Park it is the wind in the trees and the cries of the peacocks, here it was the sounds of traffic, revellers at the bar opposite and the smell of cooking emanating from nearby restaurant kitchens. A fascinating and not unpleasant experience, and I do hope that Arcola Outside will become a regular feature of our Summer theatre going.

I have to confess that I have not seen the film The Devil wears Prada but clearly its ethos could be an inspiration in this production. But the role of opera is certainly not to evoke Hollywood films, and the strength of Ensemble OrQuesta's performance was that the balanced and talented cast produced and array of characterful performances which drew us into the drama.

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