Dallas — For all of the magic that is George Frederic Handel’s Alcina, the American Baroque Opera Co.’s first fully staged production delivers a richly compact rendition of the opera seria to audiences at the Arts Mission Oak Cliff. They’ve done away with the choral complements to allow the story to unfold through a seven-person cast, and Rebecca Choate Beasley’s stage direction effectively utilizes the space in order to facilitate two-and-half hours of captivating storytelling.
Renovated from a former church, Arts Mission Oak Cliff is a beautiful creative sanctuary for local artists nestled in the heart of one of the city’s most burgeoning areas, and it served as a charming location for the show. The term “country house opera” comes to mind upon entering the venue and beholding the intimate set, without, of course, the classist connotations that go along with it.
Set designer Gemma Guiomard transforms the stage into a sort of fairytale pop-up book with delightfully painted panels depicting the halls of a mystical island castle serving as a permanent backdrop before which the drama unfolds. The set plays so well into the aesthetics of the former chancel, and it does well to leave room enough for spectators to project their own imaginations upon the framework and fill in the gaps.
One can’t help but appreciate the opportunity to be up close and personal with the artists, particularly as the show opens with pairs of playfully affectionate characters entering and exiting through every accessible point in the room throughout the Overture.
Music director Eric Smith and his 15-piece orchestra are tucked neatly house left of the stage, and with Baroque period strings, winds, and harpsichord continuo, they lay down a texture that is light and lively. Their sound fits perfectly in the small space while leaving just enough room for the vocals to effectively fill the void.
The tight quarters also allow one to pay homage to the work of costume designers Arianna Reaves and Antonio Bartolo. Adorned in period garb, the title character enters regally outfitted in golds and deep reds, complimented by a glistening diadem and ruby pendant. The attention to detail here is compelling, however unbalanced when juxtaposed against the more slapdash accoutrement of some of the male personas. One could be forgiven for overlooking this aesthetic unbalance, though, as the vocal performances served to transport attendees from everything that they knew into a world entirely of the cast and crew’s making, which works so fittingly with the opera’s plot.
Handel’s Alcina takes place on an island of illusion—comprised of the souls of the enchantress, Alcina’s, former lovers taking the form of various flora and fauna. There, she lives and rules with her sister, Morgana, and Morgana’s lover, General Oronte. Her power is pushed to the limit when she succumbs to the overwhelming effects of true love after giving her heart to the unwitting Ruggiero, who is under the sorceress’ enchantment. However, when Ruggiero’s betrothed, Bradamante, arrives to the island disguised as her brother “Ricciardo” with her tutor Melisso, Alcina’s power is threatened. Meanwhile, a young boy, Oberto, desperately seeks to find his father, who, unbeknownst to him, has been turned into a ferocious beast by Alcina. She and Morgana attempt to maintain their control over the trapped souls within their kingdom, until they are ultimately undone by Ruggiero and company.
The power and magnitude of Lyndi Williams Krause’s Alcina is immediately evident in her performance. The soprano does well to capture the dichotomy of the sorceress’ character—vengeful, yet vulnerable—with her stately stage presence and laser-like vocal control. She offers a wrenching and beautifully tragic “Si, son quella, non più bella,” desperately trying to convince Ruggiero of her devotion. The da capo is bare and exposed, with voice and basso continuo on harpsichord and cello working in an intensely emotive manner as if to say, “Come, lean in and listen.” And then, her cruel mistreatment of the innocent Oberto (soprano Leslie Hochmann), for example, reminds you that you love to hate her.
Nicholas Garza’s Ruggiero occupies a uniquely Handel-esque role throughout the show. His countertenor is warm and round, with a sharp clarity in the higher registers. It was a treat to watch him transform, from the defensive and vocally athletic coloratura of “De te mi rido” in Act One to the humble and earnest characterization delivered in “Verdi prati” in Act Three. As Ruggiero is shown the truth of Alcina’s captivating spell over him, with the help of Melisso (baritone Joshua Hughes) and a magic ring, the audience is given the privilege of witnessing Garza’s vocal and dramatic evolution. His presence on stage changes; he adorns his knightly robes and shifts into a more enthralling vocal identity—one that highlights the poignancy of the countertenor tone that can only be experienced in Baroque repertoire.
For this viewer, the vocal and dramatic standout in this production is soprano Jendi Tarde. She gives Morgana a seductive vibrancy that is equal in both humor and drama, with precise and heartbreaking highs and an endearing mid-range. When attending a Baroque opera, one should expect to encounter the traditional “stand-and-deliver” approach toward the characters’ staging. And, while this was largely the case for most of the cast (namely Bradamante, Oronte, Oberto, and Melisso), Tarde does anything but, using every plane of the stage to lie or lean. This gave her character a sense of depth—outside of the traditional Baroque shape—making her, admittedly, more entertaining to watch.
Tarde brilliantly closes out the first act with “Tornami a vagheggiar,” her misguided attempt to seduce the cross-dressing Bradamante, portrayed by Hannah Ceniseros’ warm and delicate mezzo-soprano. Tarde uses the entire stage, pantomiming her lustful ambitions before shoving the reluctant “Ricciardo” backstage, bringing down the stage curtain in the process. She puts her flirtatious prowess and vocal flexibility to work yet again in Act Three’s “Credete al mio dolore.” Together with Smith’s compelling solo on cello, she begs forgiveness from her slighted love, Oronte (tenor Tony Hughes), and with a fierce flair of her fan, comically punctuates what is arguably this production’s most physically and emotionally engaged aria.
Alcina provokes thoughts of identity, commitment, and ownership. As the show ends, and Ruggiero destroys the source of Alcina’s power, one is forced to ponder these major themes, exhumed from the year 1735. Their relevance today can be seen in everyday relationships, from romantic to platonic. The opera cautions us to be wary of that which we covet, and dares us to be bold enough to confront the truths of our own choices.
The American Baroque Opera Co.’s portrayal featured a solid ensemble of vocalists and instrumentalists. However, it was the creatively authentic approach toward storytelling that made this production particularly enjoyable for this viewer. As this was my first experience with the ABOC and Arts Mission Oak Cliff, I plan to cement this location as a permanent go-to for future performances and events.