Baroque Opera: Wiener Staatsoper's Alcina

Not only was this visit to the Wiener Staatsoper a first for me (a Handel Baroque opera), but also, apparently, a first for the Staatsoper. I was informed that they either have not, or very unusually have utilized before this production of George Frideric Handel's Alcina period instruments, tuning, and technique for a Baroque work. Despite this focus on historical accuracy and musical fidelity, the staging and the set were relatively modern in many ways, taking some liberties with even the ideas of the original story (an arrival on a balloon rather than a hippogryph, for instance). I will say that the production felt very long, with a lot of da capo arias. That said, it was extremely well put together, and the abilities of the singers, though not without a few stumbles, were astounding. I must here enter one apology: I do not know Alcina well enough, and the information on the internet is scarce enough such that I will be unable to give aria names, but will have to refer to performances and styles generally.

Here's a link to the synopsis and general information:

Dirigent - Marc Minkowski
Regie - Adrian Noble
Ausstattung - Anthony Ward
Lichgt - Jean Kalman
Choreografie - Sue Lefton
Chorleitung - Thomas Lang

Alcina - Inga Kalna
Ruggiero - Vesselina Kasarova
Morgana - Veronica Cangemi
Bradamante - Kristina Hammarström
Oberto - Alois Mühlbacher (Florianer Sängerknabe)
Oronte - Benjamin Bruns 
Melisso - Adam Plachetka

Musiker auf der Bühne:
Violine - Thibault Noally
Violoncello - Nils Wieboldt
Flöte - Florian Cousin
Blockflöte - Gilberto Caserio de Almeida
Theorbe - Toshinori Ozaki
Cembalo - Francesco Corti

Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble - Wiener Staatsballett

Chor: Hannelore Auer, Gilles Combecave, Christian Jung, Isabell Leibnitz, Jens Musger, Richard Neugebauer, Barbara Ramser, Martina Reder, Barbara Sommerbauer, Cornelia Sonnliethner, Matthias Spielvogel, Ion Tibrea

An example of the back of the set
The set was a rather unusual take on what I imagine has historically been a fairly standard concept. The opera is supposedly set on an island, made idyllic only through sorcery but otherwise barren. I imagine most typical designers for the show try to render the island precisely. The prologue is supposed to include travel, however. The design for this production managed this problem by using a sort of framing set. The work opened with a semi-circular smokey grey colored sitting room with inlaid walls. Uniquely in the opening tableaux the mirror-mounted candles were actually lit and remained so until the conclusion of the opera. The painting in the "windows" in the center of this drawing room depicted an island with a fiery volcano. During the storm that strands the travelers on the island this lit up as though it were erupting and the orchestra stomped their feet - a cool, if unorthodox effect. For the vast majority of the opera, however, the center panels of the sitting room were opened, revealing the grass field that can be seen in the photo above. The fusion of the drawing room walls and furniture (ottomans, richly cushioned chairs, and chaises) in the foreground and the grass in the background was a bit incongruous, but it certainly drew the eye. This was aided by the rich jewel tones used for the costuming. I wouldn't call the costuming period (it certainly wasn't from Handel's time) but it was attempting to invoke a pre-20th Century era. It also possessed a slightly asian feel in some cases. Mostly however the bright colors really benefited the visual appeal and made the show accessible.

Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble did an excellent job playing period accurate Handel. Working with period instruments tuned below 440 (though I'm not sure how exactly much below) they played sweetly in the slower moments and were able to capture the raging feel of the coloratura in the arias dispersed throughout the show. Particularly impressive, perhaps, were those musicians who came onstage for short periods of time. They would carry their instruments on stage and play along with a singer, or sometimes on their own, for one recitative, aria, or interlude, carrying over the rest of the orchestra or acting as the sole accompaniment. The harpsichord onstage also added to the parlor atmosphere. Accompanying these musicians in some of the interludes were the dancers of the Wiener Staatsballet. The dance style was definitely modern, with flowing movements and sudden pauses. This style, though contrasting with the Baroque music, fit well as a representation of the passions and sorceries on which the plot centers.

The singing in this production was characterized, overall, by immaculate coloratura, stylistic appropriateness, and good voices. Adam Plachetka's Melisso showed excellent control of character, he seemed to be a professor and had none of the amazing verve I saw in his Don Giovanni. This fit perfectly for the minor role of Melisso.

Alcina and Oberto
Benjamin Bruns' tenor really shined in his most monumental aria as Oberto, showing off his coloratura and moving the voice with such alacrity that we heard a consistent, wonderful tone. Both with this coloratura moment and with his overall characterization (as well as looks) he was able to really capture both his passionate love for Morgana as well as his rage as the opera progresses and jealousy ensues. My only complaint was that in all his fiery fury and passion, the voice felt rough to me. I will be the first to agree with Callas' statement that not all singing should be pretty (though I don't love Callas herself). I even find this to be especially the case in Baroque music. Still, the gravel that sometimes overtook Bruns' voice made it hard to feel that he was overall performing well that evening.

Perhaps the unexpected star of the evening was the boy soprano Alois Mühlbacher's. I must point out the condition that part of the reason the audience was so thrilled to hear him was his youth. That said, his tone was beautiful and almost always full (we cannot expect a boy soprano to have as much warmth as a grown voice). The coloratura was stunning. In his three arias he was able to make his way through rangy, rapid-fire passages of fairly sizable length. He seemed to be, understandably, at about the maximum age possible before his voice changes, probably a necessity to sing such challenging repertoire. His main failing was his acting and body control while singing. He like to move his body with the coloratura. Many singers do this, and many look dumb doing so because their movements don't seem to relate to the music. A few can pull it off as emotionally connected. Here, Bruns' movements were yet more exaggerated than older singers and looked honestly ridiculous. Still, if he continues to sing after his voice change, he will learn to handle that, in time (or he will have a fach that doesn't require coloratura).
An excellent depiction of Morgana and Ruggiero
It's hard to say something bad about Veronica Cangemi in the role of Morgana because all so much of Baroque opera rests on the ability to make it through incredibly taxing coloratura passages. Ms. Cangemi effectively navigated this coloratura. She also differentiated herself as the sorceress sister with a bit of a half-crazed demeanor, which made her effective and also was a good flat characterization contrasted against the round character of Alcina. My main complaint might be that her top sometimes got away from her, turning shrill and popping out of the regular set up to generate an entirely different tone.

Alcina herself, played by Inga Kalna, demonstrated a coloratura soprano at the height of her powers. Throughout the entire opera she showed perfect control and an understanding of where all the notes belonged. This confidence translated into our understanding of Alcina. It helped to emphasize the pathos of her situation after she realizes she is truly in love with Ruggiero. Kalna did not quite have the exuberant passion a younger or simply different soprano might, choosing instead a reserved demeanor. Still, for a sort of sorceress queen, this felt appropriate. Kalna's top popped in a few places, as well, but it was not really noticeable. It was quite an impressive performance in a very difficult role.

The truly outstanding performers of the night, however, were Vesselina Kasarova and Kristina Hammarström in the roles of Ruggiero and Bradamante, respectively. Kasarova exhibited some restraint in the beginning of the production. This restraint in her singing made her truly seem as though she were in an ensorcelled,  romantic daze. She nonetheless was able to produce a warm, passionate, ringing coloratura. This expanded even more when she Ruggiero finally transforms back to the heroic knight he originally was. Possessing by far the deepest, darkest (though not dark, by any means) timbre of any woman present, Kasarova was able to embody this heroism even as she accurately and rigorously worked through the hallmark coloratura passages typical of heroic characters in the Baroque period. Hammarström's mezzo-soprano, of a much lighter quality than Kasarova's, fit well the fusion between Bradamante and her assumed identity as a man (her brother). Hammarström's coloratura arias were, in my opinion, the best wrought of all the performers in the evening. She exuded passion, rage, and love, striking exactly the perfect tone for the different emotions in different sections of the opera and in different arias. The most difficult modulation, as well, was her ability to switch between the woman in love with Ruggiero, and the woman assuming the heroic role of saving him. Both parts of her character were believable, and essential to a good performance.

I really appreciated this performance. I think it would be hard to listen to four hour long Baroque opera all the time, but I do really appreciate the Baroque style and it was nice to see a relatively authentic production of one of Handel's works.


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