N.Y. City Opera continues Handel festival

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Sept. 22, 2003 at 1:50 PM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- The New York City Opera has opened its 60th anniversary season with George Frideric Handel's seldom-performed "Alcina," continuing its retrospective of Handel's operatic works begun in 1966 with "Giulio Cesare."

"Giulio Cesare" established Beverly Sills as a star and touched off the contemporary revival of Handel's operas and other works of the Baroque period in houses all over America. "Alcina," however, had its American premiere at the Dallas Opera as early as 1960 in the form of a sensational Franco Zeffirelli production that introduced Australian-born soprano Joan Sutherland to America.

"Alcina" was one of Handel's Italian operas written for audiences at the Covent Garden Theater, London, and first performed in 1735, just three months after he premiered his "Ariodante" there. Both of these operas, as well as his 1733 "Orlando," were based on Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem, "Orlando furioso," published in the 16th century.

The story of the sorceress, Alcina, told in the sixth and seventh cantos of the 46-canto "Orlando furioso," was as familiar to Handel's audiences as the story of "Harry Potter" is to audiences today. It has all the elements of a Potter book -- witchcraft, fantasy, romance, suspense, humor, and, of course, the triumph of good over evil.

The City Opera's new production by Francesca Zambello lacks the magic of Zeffirelli's unforgettable staging but it is a solid piece of work, more concise than the original by having been cut from four hours to three. This was accomplished by removing a subplot and eliminating repetitive third sections of arias that were a common practice in musical composition in Handel's day.

Now an opera in two acts instead of the original three, "Alcina" tells the story of a ravishing woman with supernatural powers who lures heroes to her island realm and seduces them by witchcraft. When she tires of these handsome young men, she turns them into wild beasts, rocks, trees, and streams. Her latest conquest is a knight name Ruggiero, betrothed to Bradamante.

Bradamante, a resourceful young woman, arrives on Alcina's island disguised as a warrior in search of Ruggiero. She is able to wrest her fiancé, whose memory of her has been erased, from Alcina's grasp and restore him to reality, but their escape seems in peril until Alcina is abandoned by the evil powers that have made her a sorceress.

The plot is fleshed out by a romantic crush developed by Alcina's sister, Morgana, on Bradamante, thinking him a man, and the consequences of jealousy this inspires in her lover, Oronte, Alcina's serving man. It's all a little silly, but such themes as dominance and subservience in romantic relationships and the dangers of shallow attachment are seriously defined in the most ravishing musical terms.

This is an opera that makes incredible demands on its cast, since both female and male singers are required to perform trills, roulades, and other coloratura adornments in almost every aria at breathtaking length. Some members of the City Opera cast were able to meet these demands better than others, though all performances were acceptable.

Having a real triumph on opening night in the pants role of Ruggiero, judging by audience applause and cheers, was mezzo-soprano Katherine Goeldner, whose bravura rendering of the heroic aria, "Sta nell'Ircana," brought down the house. She has a rich, exciting voice and an easy way of imitating male stance and gestures that already has put her in demand internationally for the role of Octavian in "Der Rosenkavalier."

Christine Goerke, one of the company's top sopranos, had an uneven night as Alcina but when singing consistently and without faulty pitch she displayed the warmth and power of a well-trained voice on the brink of diva fame. As an actress, she was able to create a haughty yet human mien that suggested a real, even sympathetic personality rather than a dramatically contrived one.

Mezzo Jennifer Dudley made a lovely but sometimes vocally insecure Bradamante, and tenor Keith Jameson turned in a lively, trumpet-voiced performance as Oronte that won him rounds of applause. Soprano Lauren Skuce was altogether satisfactory as the anguished Morgana, getting all her roulades just right, and bass-baritone Joshua Winograde was stalwart both vocally and dramatically as Bradamante's companion, Melisso, his debut role with the company.

David Beckwith conducted with great attention to giving a clear definition to Handel's florid score. Set designer Neil Patel's fortress walls and silvery palace interiors are simple but charming, and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes were vaguely Renaissance and generally undistinguished.

Which brings us to the modern ballet sequences by Sean Curran, replacing the French-style ballet intended for the original Handel stagings.

Curran has used a dozen male dancers representing Alcina's discarded lovers, rigged out as trees to perform unflatteringly feminine dance movements and take awkward poses that do little to enhance the opera or add to a feeling of fantasy that is unfortunately missing from much of Zambello's production.

"Alcina" will be performed through Sept. 26.

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