Santa Fe, N.M. — Santa Fe Opera’s production of Handel’s Alcina features some truly lovely singing, but a production that is incoherent, bizarre, and distracting. Since a performance lasts over three and a half hours, this production is a long, strange trip indeed.
The plot of the 1735 opera is confusing enough to begin with—based on the Renaissance epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, the storyline focuses on Alcina and her sister Morgana. They are sorceresses who occupy an island where they seduce men, then tire of them and turn them into animals, plants, or inanimate objects. Ruggiero is one such young man. His fiancée, Bradamante, dresses as a man to rescue him. She and her tutor, Melisso, use a magic ring to break Alcina’s spell. Meanwhile, Oberto, a young boy, is seeking his father, who has been transformed into a lion by Alcina. After the magic ring dissolves Alcina’s magic, Ruggiero defeats Alcina’s army of spirits, Oberto sees his lion-father transform back into a human, and all is well for everyone but the defeated Alcina.
If this sounds familiar, little wonder. The trope of the woman who seduces men through her scary woman-magic is as old as literature, harkening back to Homer (Alcina is Circe-esque, to be sure) and beyond. The notion that men must destroy the feminine magic in order to retrieve their masculine power is varied here only, but significantly, by the presence of Bradamonte. While she is dressed as a man and has the assistance of her male tutor, it is she who, ultimately, wields the power to break Alcina’s spell and free her fiancé.
The singers, and for the most part the orchestra, were gorgeous. Elza van den Heever, whom we saw in the spring with the Dallas Opera in the title role of Bellini’s Norma, lent her radiant soprano to the role of Alcina. Baroque opera is a very different beast, so to speak, than its 19th-century and later counterpart. While the Santa Fe Opera was, wisely, not trying to mount an authentic Baroque production, van den Heever never went overboard with the vibrato, either. She maintained a luminous, clear, and simply wonderful voice throughout.
The other women of the cast evinced similarly unadorned voices, to excellent effect. Daniela Brock, as Bradamante displayed an agile voice with a wide range of tonal colors. Anna Christy, as Morgana, Jacquelyn Stucker as Oberto, the young boy seeking his father, and Paula Murrihy as Ruggiero all did credit to their roles. Ruggiero’s role was originally meant to be sung by a mezzo-soprano castrato, and since those are now, blessedly, in short supply, Ruggiero is now generally a trouser role. Murrihy was convincing in her acting, and has enough vocal power to make us suspend disbelief.
The male roles are smaller ones in this opera, though both Christian van Horn as Melisso and Alek Shrader as Oronte were capable and versatile voices.
The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, conducted by Harry Bicket, navigated Handel’s music beautifully, almost always. While there were some moments of excessive (to my taste) vibrato in the strings, which contrasted uncomfortably with the historically accurate open strings the orchestra also favored, the playing was clean and bright.
That production, though. Directed by David Alden, with scenic and costume design by Gideon Davey, lighting design by Malcom Rippeth, and choreography by Beate Vollack, it begins with parkour athletes, dressed as Alcina’s transformed animals, performing acrobatics on the adobe walls that flank the stage (which seems like an accident waiting to happen). It continues with a hotel setting, sort of, with characters dressed as bellhops (why?) and a bit of physical comedy with a line of hotel doors (you never know who will come out of what door—is that supposed to be funny? And is this really a comedy?). Then there’s a bit of business with a guy in a gorilla suit holding a disco ball, burlesque dancers and pink satin elbow-length gloves. These gloves, first sported by Alcina, and then reproducing themselves everywhere until they fall from the ceiling in a pink-glove shower. (One patron was overheard to say, “Why don’t they sell pink gloves in the gift shop?) Oh, let’s not forget the simulated onstage sex. And this is just a small sampling. The production is truly weird, and not in a good way. All of the shenanigans onstage distract from the glorious singing—I found myself closing my eyes and just listening for whole arias at a time.
This is a production better heard than seen.