Handel – Alcina
Alcina – Karina Gauvin
Morgana – Anna Christy
Ruggiero – Christine Rice
Bradamante – Sonia Prina
Melisso – Luca Tittoto
Oronte – Allan Clayton
Oberto – Erika Escribà
Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real de Madrid / Christopher Moulds.
Stage director – David Alden.
Teatro Real, Madrid. Saturday, October 31st, 2015.
For this second visit to Madrid following last month’s Roberto Devereux it was time for some baroque. Alcina is a tour de force for the soprano in the title role and tonight we had one of the greatest Handel sopranos of our time as part of a very fine cast. The production, which was previously seen in Bordeaux, was the work of David Alden. Alden’s production of La Calisto in Munich is for me his finest work and in some ways this Alcina is a cousin of it. Certainly, the way the set (Gideon Davey) was set up, with a curtained stage at the back left and the presence of animal figures at certain points, reminded me of the visuals of that particular show. Sadly, I’m not sure that this production is as successful.
The main reason for this is that I found Alden’s work hyperactive. Yes, the piece is made up of recitatives and da capo arias, but the impression that I got was that Alden didn’t trust the work and his singer-actors enough to carry the piece. So often, distracting stage business would take the attention away from arias, seemingly adding little in the way of character development and narrative progression. At its best, as in when Morgana sang ‘ama, sospira, ma non ti offende’ the stage pictures were quite effective precisely because they illustrated the micro-society in which the action took place. During his Act 1 aria, Allan Clayton’s Oronte got to demonstrate his capacity for a mean Irish jig but I’m not sure it especially added much to our understanding of his character. Yet, when Alden really focused attention on his singers, the effect was remarkable. As Christine Rice sang ‘verdi prati’ alone on stage, without distractions, it allowed us to focus completely on her character’s situation. Likewise, Gauvin’s ‘mi restano le lagrime’ was unbearable to watch because she completely incorporated her character’s despair and the focus was solely on her.
One element that was particularly successful was the lighting (Simon Mills). It made wonderful use of shadows to demonstrate interactions between characters and certainly helped to illustrate the narrative. There were some interesting ideas – Alcina wearing a pink glove to represent her powers and the gloves descending from the flies as if from the spirits rejecting her in ‘ombre pallide’. Above all, I found the staging didn’t quite trust the work enough to tell the story and felt compelled to add layers of extraneous detail that did nothing in the way of giving us deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations.
Musically, it was a very satisfying evening on the whole. Morgana was sung by Anna Christy. She is a very musical singer and everything she does is certainly stylistically appropriate, yet in a house the size of the Real, the voice didn’t carry and wasn’t helped by Alden placing her upstage far too often. The tone sounds shallow and gains shrillness at the very top. Perhaps in a smaller house it might work much better. Certainly, the musical instincts are very much there, she has a reliable technique and she is a fine actress. It’s just that I craved a bigger voice that could carry through the house. As in Handel’s time, the choral parts were sung by the ensemble. Erika Escribà was a positive presence on the stage and sang Oberto in a bright soprano that certainly has a lot of promise.
Sonia Prina brought her familiar clarinet-toned contralto to the role of Bradamante. She is a highly engaging actress and her ornamentation, indeed that of the whole cast, was highly stylish. The voice perhaps lacks the ultimate variety of tone colours and ‘vorrei vendicarmi’ went a little off the rails but she sang with genuine stylistic awareness and a fastidious attention to text. Luca Tittoto likewise gave us an impeccable account of his aria with a good line and satisfying ornamentation of the da capo and he was a wonderfully warm presence in the ensembles. Allan Clayton gave us some textbook Handel singing as Oronte. He dispatched ‘è un folie’ with wonderful aplomb and he also gave us an ‘un momento di contento’ of glorious tonal beauty.
Christine Rice gave us a fabulously introspective ‘verdi prati’ completely entering into the spirit of her character, the line elegant, sung with velvety tone and a beautiful use of text. Perhaps, ‘sta nell’ircana’ could have done with slightly firmer, more heroic tone but Rice really did give us Handel singing of great distinction.
Then there was Gauvin’s Alcina. Here we had this wonderful feeling of hearing and seeing an artist sing music as if it had been written for her and her alone. Gauvin truly made the role her own. This was singing that was not only stylistically impeccable but also genuinely lived. Her opening ‘di cor mio’ was sung with effortlessly long lines and ornamentation that genuinely enhanced the vocal line and brought it to life. It felt that she was creating the role for us right here and now. She is a commanding stage presence, an outstanding actress, dominating the stage whenever she appears. For her opening aria, she perambulated from the back to the front of the stage and for those few minutes, it seemed like nothing else mattered. Her ‘ah mio cor’ was absolutely devastating. Taken at a slightly swifter tempo than usual, the jagged strings fed into a vocal line that was so full of pain and regret yet when she sang ‘son regina’ you genuinely believed her. It really felt tonight that we were given a masterclass in Handel singing by an artist at the peak of her powers.
The house band played exceptionally well for Christopher Moulds. The biggest compliment I can pay them is that they sounded like a period band, such was the stylishness of the playing that they gave us. Attack was sharp, strings played without vibrato and the continuo group was a lively presence, making it feel that the music was being created at that very moment. Tempi were swift, but never overly so, though I might have preferred ‘sta nell’ircana’ to be a notch or two swifter. This was a major achievement for the house band, cementing the Teatro Real’s position as one of the leading houses.
Ultimately this was a mixed evening. In some respects the production worked yet on the whole I felt that it didn’t trust the form of the piece enough to make it work fully. There was perhaps an unwillingness to allow the audience to make up their own minds about the piece and instead it felt that Alden threw everything at it in the hope that something might work. That said, the cast completely threw themselves into the staging giving it absolutely everything they had. Musically, it was an exceptional evening, one that will remain long in the memory for the outstanding assumption of the title role and the extremely fine supporting cast.