Händel – Alcina
Alcina – Magdalena Kožená
Morgana – Erin Morley
Ruggiero – Anna Bonitatibus
Bradamante – Elizabeth DeShong
Melisso – Alex Rosen
Oronte – Valerio Contaldo
Oberto – Mercedes Gancedo
Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski.
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia. Friday, February 17th, 2023.
This evening’s concert performance of Alcina was the penultimate of a tour that has taken these forces to cities around France, Germany, Spain, and Catalonia over the past week and a half. It has been an intense schedule for the performers – not only was the work performed uncut, but shows were scheduled every other day, in addition to a recording session during the stop in Bordeaux. Touring in these times of plague is certainly not easy, and the scheduled Oberto, Alois Mühlbacher, was replaced at the very last second by Barcelona-based Argentine soprano Mercedes Gancedo, who must have nerves of steel to come out and sing with such aplomb at such short notice.
Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre are, of course, no strangers to Händel’s music. Around him, he assembled a cast of both experienced and youthful Händelians. The four hours of this evening flew by. Not only were Minkowski’s tempi ideally swift, but they were founded on an irresistible rhythmic impetus that pulled us in and was physical in its sheer impact. He had a fairly sizeable orchestra at his disposal (strings were 10.8.6.5.3) and that certainly helped accentuate the rhythmic flow in a house of this size. Yet not only was that sense of visceral rhythm present, but it also felt that Minkowski’s phrasing of the long string lines was undoubtedly cantabile, accentuating and contrasting with those typically Händelian florid vocal lines. Despite the long evening, string intonation was absolutely spot on all night and the winds were full of character, oboes duetting beguilingly with Erin Morley’s Morgana in ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’. We also heard obligatos of genuine sensitivity from solo violinist Alice Piérot and solo cellist Gauthier Broutin in their contributions. Minkowski also genuinely seemed to be having the time of his life on the podium. With a seat close to the front, I was able to witness his facial expressions engaging with and encouraging his singers to ever more impressive flights of virtuosity, or heart-rending expressions of sentiment.
Magdalena Kožená poured her heart out for us in the title role. Her bright, soprano-ish mezzo is unchanged with the years, still even in emission, yet able to plunge to the warm depths. Her Alcina was both haughty and racked with insecurity. Kožená was unafraid to sacrifice the beauty of tone or emission to bring out the emotions, her repeated ‘perchè?’s in ‘Ah! mio cor!’, were filled with pain, the brittleness she brought to the tone was almost neurotic. She turned the corners of ‘ombre pallide’ drawing out meaning through her expert negotiation of the long, complex melismas. Yet, Kožená wasn’t just about the intensity. There was a happiness to her impeccable legato and sunny tone in ‘Di’, cor mio’, that I found captivating. Perhaps she could have made more of those distinctive Italian double consonants, but she certainly used the text to drive the line. Kožená tonight took us on a journey and we gladly went on it with her.
Anna Bonitatibus brought her familiar verbal acuity to the role of Ruggiero. Bonitatibus has that remarkable ability to communicate meaning through the text, using a palette of vocal colours in her orange-toned mezzo to bring her character to life. Bonitatibus was alive to both the stillness and the virtuosity of Ruggiero’s music. Her account of ‘verdi prati’ was full of beauty, long, seemingly endless lines, exploiting the exquisiteness of the language to shade the tone. When she got to ‘sta nell’Ircana’ something very special happened. It was as if she and Minkowski just decided to go for it – he gave her a terrifically lively tempo to take it at, and she ornamented the line with bravura virtuosity, firing reams of impeccable runs into the house. It was exhilarating.
Morley was a delicious Morgana. Not only does she have a fabulous technique, but she also knows how to unite text and music to make us believe in her character – even in this concert setting. Her soprano isn’t the most refulgent in tone, but Morley is such an intelligent singer, knowing how to use the line and the language to compensate for a relatively limited range of tone colours. Her virtuosity as she switched between impeccably pitched stratospheric staccati and long languid lines in ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ was impressive, and in her ‘Credete al mio dolore’ she sang with genuine introspection and feeling, pulling us in. I only hope that the person whose phone rang in the closing phrases felt suitably ashamed.
Elizabeth DeShong coped impressively with some very swift tempi for her numbers, dispatching the runs with consummate ease. The voice descends to a wonderfully full and generous chestiness, yet there’s no audible break as she rises through the registers. Her Italian is rather Anglophone in flavour but she genuinely attempted to use the text to pull out meaning.
Alex Rosen was a seriously impressive Melisso. What an exceptionally handsome bass he has – and indeed excellent Italian, also. The voice has a warm smokiness in the middle, descending to a full and resonant bottom of seemingly unlimited depth. He also has a very fine legato.
As Oronte, Valerio Contaldo sang his music in a focused, bright tenor, able to turn the corners with ease and no aspirates entering the line. Gancedo sang Oberto’s music most agreeably, with a lively soprano, good legato, and dispatched her final aria with imaginative and confident ornamentation in the da capo, in what must have been an extremely daunting last-second assignment.
Tonight, we most certainly got a feast of Händelian singing from a superb cast. It was one of those evenings where the bar was raised at the start and just continued going ever higher until it was positively stratospheric by the end of the evening. Under Minkowski’s sprightly direction, the evening simply lived, and the singing throughout was spectacular. As one might expect in these circumstances, the Liceu audience reacted with frequent and extremely generous ovations. Most definitely a night to remember.