Handel’s 1735 opera Alcina is based on the poem Orlando furioso, a 16th century epic poem by Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto, with the opera opening in the midst of a broader plot involving the heroic knight Ruggiero, who, under the spell of sorceress (Meghan Lindsay), abandons life and his beloved, Bradamante (Wallis Giunta). Alcina has cast aside many lovers in her realm, turning them all into inanimate objects (rocks, waterfalls, columns) that color and shape her world, a desert she’s made into a mirage. The warrior-like Bradamante disguises herself as a man and, together with Melisso (Olivier Laquerre), sets off in pursuit, to bring him back from the evil realm, freeing the trapped men in the process, and ending Alcina’s powers.
The production, with musical accompaniment by Toronto’s talented Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, opens with what is perhaps the most barren stage ever seen in an Opera Atelier production. Known for its sumptuous sets and costumes, the company has made a semi-dramatic switch with Alcina, offering what might be their most high-concept production ever, with plenty of meta-theatrical ideas. Fear not, period-opera fans: the big costumes and baroque dancing are still here. Used in conjunction with the video projections, however, produces a bizarre mix of styles that doesn’t serve either the music or the deeper themes contained within the narrative.
An ephemeral reading of Alcina’s plot suggests it’s pure fluff, a silly piece of proto-mythological drama firmly ensconced within the opera seria tradition. A deeper reading, however, suggests broader themes relating to power and gender relationships, themes echoed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, works named by director (and Opera Atelier’s Co-Artistic Director) Marshall Pynkoski in his pre-show comments, adding that Handel’s opera is “comic, ironic, and full of pathos and longing". The problem with Pynkoski’s vision is that it doesn’t fully embrace these ideas, much less the drama inherent within its silly-seeming plot. By focusing on the theme of entrapment (particularly one brand of it), the production ignores examining the complex psychology of its main character and avoids the opera's deeper issues concerning power and communication.
The barren stage at the opening, with the Elgin Theatre’s black-painted back wall exposed and dancers warming up, is jarring, if somewhat intriguing. Here the stage is set for a meta-theatrical interpretation of Handel’s opera, one underscored by the use of space beyond the immediate stage; singers occasionally enter from a box (with an iron staircase providing access), exit through the rows in the audience, and musicians are placed in boxes closes to the stage. It’s all interesting, but does it serve the story? Yes and no. These elements, together with the use of dreamy, surreal video projections (directed by Ben Shirinian) underline Alcina’s powers of imagination and the production’s meta-theatrical approach.
However, there's an over-reliance on the visual aspect that hints at a lack of trust in the inherent drama of Handel's score. A good example is the scene in Act II where Alcina is forced to face the destruction of her kingdom. She is placed alone, sitting center stage, her huge white dress billowing around her; it’s a strong, compelling visual suggesting isolation and abandonment, greatly complemented by soprano Meghan Lindsay’s impassioned reading. As she gets up and moves to one side of the stage, there ensues a disco-meets-strobe effect at its centre: where, at this point, should we be looking — at the singer or the effect? It’s as if Pynkoski, pining for the company’s more decadently-designed productions, can’t resist the lure of aesthetic razzle-dazzle. It's sound and fury signifying little beyond... sound and fury, with little trust in the "sound" part.
Further compounding the production's over-busy design is the use of a platform with a fake harpsichord, lowered down onto the stage at random points throughout the opera. Sometimes musicians are on it, floating (well, harnessed) in mid-air; other times it’s lowered completely, whereby it’s “played” by Mireille Asselin’s Morgana, as her on-and-off again beloved Oronte (Kresimir Spicer) serenades her. Thick support cords aside, the big question here (again) is, why? What does this element add in terms of our understanding of the story, its characters, and their journeys? While its use does contribute to Pynkoski’s overall concept of Alcina’s lair being an entirely-imagined realm, one borne out of her own loneliness and desolation, the platform-harpsichord doesn't deepen one's understanding of the opera’s themes. Just as distracting are the numerous video projections of writhing male bodies that appear from the rock and waterfall paintings that serve as backdrops for the set. It’s a nice bit of eye candy, and certainly a romantic, sexy vision of entrapment, but it doesn’t serve in probing the inner lives of the characters (Alcina’ especially), and the mounds of pulsating, twisting flesh become little more than window dressing.
That’s a pity, because there is in Alcina an opportunity to explore more timely ideas of sex and power, especially as they relate to men and women. Relationships between Ruggiero and Bradamante, and Oronte and Morgana, are played for cuteness and laughs, rather than used as a meaningful counterpoint to Alcina and her horror of communication, her difficulty with vulnerability and compromise, and her deep loneliness. That isolation, of course, is the ultimate entrapment, but it isn’t clearly explored. The video projection near the opera's end of a stream of naked men being freed from her spell is less of an emotional catharsis than it is reminiscent of a Monty Python cartoon; one half-expects to see a giant cartoon hand be lowered alongside the harpsichord. It's all about imagination, right? The projection captures the problem with this production: it doesn't negotiate the balance between beauty and meaning, and it stubbornly refuses to draw ties between storylines, music and characters that might better illuminate deeper themes of power, sex and relationships.
The real saving grace here — and a very big reason to see Alcina — is its truly spectacular singing. The six-person cast, together with the Opera Atelier Chorus, offering a stunning vocal mix. As feisty Morgana, Alcina’s second-in-command, soprano Mireilla Asselin offers an array of sounds that move between spritely, fiery and lyrical; she handles Handel’s melisma (singing one syllable across many notes) with ease, style and a great sense of fun. Resplendent in a gigantic purple dress (by Michael Gianfresco), Asselin has a charming stage presence, and her scenes with mezzo Wallis Giunta (disguised as a man) move between cute infatuation and menacing obsession. Giunta, so impressive in last season’s Canadian Opera Company production of Così fan tutte, delivers a bravura performance, her Bradamante a deep-feeling warrior with an unshakeable integrity; her strong, clear mezzo is matched in every way by Allyson McHardy’s confident, mahogany tones, and their moments onstage together are shot through with a beguiling mix of tenderness and passion. That latter quality largely fuels Lindsay’s performance in the title role, though she wisely mixes in a huge dollop of grace as the piece progresses. The final scene, featuring a prostrate Alcina rising through the floor, doesn’t carry the emotional weight it should, but we can't help but hear Lindsay's clear, bell-like soprano through it all.
Truly, it’s the singing that should (and will) be ringing in your ears as you head out of the Elgin and onto the busy mess of Yonge Street. Handel’s score rises above all concepts, big or small. Hallelujah.
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