Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! Handel’s Alcina

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These are not real beasts; they are the sorceress Alcina’s former lovers, transformed by her magic.  Sorcery, super powers, battles between good and evil both within the characters and in the worlds they inhabit……  do people never tire of these themes?!  Today, Harry Potter and The Lord of the    Rings; in 1735, Handel’s opera Alcina.

Ruggiero is the superhero who finds himself on a beautiful island and who falls under the Alcina’s spell.  The thing that strikes you right away is that he sings in an unusually high pitch for a male lead. Well, just as many of us love Hawaiian falsetto, in Handel’s day, fans went bananas over the voices of the castrati, men castrated as boys to keep their soprano voices; they were the original divas. In Handel’s London, people flocked to a rival opera company to hear the castrato Farinelli, and Handel had to do some hustling to compete.  He hired his own fabulous castrato for the opening performance of Alcina. Marketing played a role in this opera’s creation!

Morgana (Nicole Steinberg)

Men, lured to her island, are routinely seduced by Alcina. When she gets bored with a lover, she has the bad habit of turning them into a beast or bush or rock. Ruggiero is so smitten he forsakes his duties as a warrior, and abandons his love for his betrothed, Bradamante. In a wonderful turnabout, she is more heroic than he, coming to the island to rescue him. For some reason, maybe a woman’s common sense, she is grounded in reality and does not fall under the illusions cast by Alcina; however, she is practicing deception herself by coming disguised as her own warrior brother. Morgana, Alcina’s sister, fooled by Bradamante’s disguise, falls in love with “him” and rejects her own lover Oronte.

With this complex web of false and true loves, most of the action is emotional, not physical, and the performers are mostly in the “stand and deliver” mode, almost like singing serial oratorios; the arias are longer than in operas after the Baroque period – up to eight minutes – often doubling back to the beginning theme after a brief pause. It is the music itself that works its magic on the audience. The dominant emotion is fury, and the first acts are filled with fast-paced, high intensity arias from each of the characters.  Some relief is afforded later; the gorgeous slow aria, “green prairies,” is one of the opera’s most famous melodies, the martial piece complete with horns as Ruggiero goes off to battle Alcina’s army is appropriately stirring, and the trio sung by the three good guys after so many solos shows off the performers’ harmonious unity.

Alcina (Samantha Burdick)

The HPAF performance was in the Davies Chapel on the Hawaii Preparatory Academy campus. While the venue is hard on your rear end (bring a cushion when you go), it is wonderful for your ears as sound resonates with fullness throughout the room. A period chamber orchestra performed the opera as sounded in Handel’s day; James Richman conducted from his seat at the harpsichord, multi-tasking with vigor and ease. To create the set, images were projected onto two walls behind the performers:  the verdant forest of the enchanted island, the ocean, the pillars of the sorceress queen’s mansion complete with a statue meant to be Circe, the Greek goddess who could transform her enemies into animals, the bare trees of the island stripped of illusion, the jagged light when the sorceress is defeated. Director Jennifer McGregor’s decision to keep the costuming and setting in the Medieval mode was appropriate for this fantastical journey.

Christopher Hochstuhl

The Hawaii Performing Arts program has three categories of singers besides the faculty:  Vocal Professional Fellows, Developing Singers, and Young Singers.  Alcina’s cast on Sunday (different from Saturday) were almost all Developing Singers (the exception was Christopher Hochstuhl as Oronte). From their performances, one can tell that these young artists have promising careers in front of them. Alcina was performed by Samantha Burdick, whose powerful and rich soprano mined the complexities of the score.  It was good to see her get more comfortable and animated in the course of the performance. But the very power of her voice expressing anger and arrogance in earlier arias made it impossible to believe, as we are expected to do, that she develops true love for Ruggiero: what should have been a very tender and despairing appeal to Ruggiero at the end left me unconvinced. The two righteous lovers are both mezzo-sopranos whose voices were mellifluous if their acting was somewhat stiff.  The two male voices, tenor Christopher Hochstuhl as Oronte and baritone Fernando Grimaldi as Bradamante’s sidekick and tutor, sang with clarity and determination.

L-R: Jesse Mashburn, Sophie Thompson, Fernando Grimaldo.

I particularly loved Sophie Thompson as Oberto, the young boy who was shipwrecked with his father, who has since disappeared. The boy is desperately trying to find him, not realizing that the man has been transformed by Alcina into a beast. Ms. Thompson has a pure soprano and immaculate articulation, in which each note even in the rapid sixteenth note passages can be distinguished; she made the boy’s anguish palpable. In a terrible act of cruelty, Alcina asks the boy to kill what seems to be a lion.  In spite of the illusion, Oberto recognizes that it is his own father in a lion’s body.  Perhaps the lesson about love true and false is that – forget duty and virtue – there is no love greater than a child’s instinctive love for his parent.

As for superheroes?  Handel has my vote.


Please visit HPAF’s website for more info and tickets for their 2018 season: http://www.hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org/events/

Photos: Steve Roby

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