One of Handel’s most dramatic and inventive operas; a conductor and orchestra known for their expertise in the repertoire; a starry cast of veteran Handelians, headed by one of opera’s biggest stars singing the title role live for the first time. One of the most hotly anticipated events of the season, this concert performance of Alcina did not fully live up to expectations, though it was an enjoyable evening of music nonetheless.

Joyce DiDonato © Mark Allan | Barbican
Joyce DiDonato
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Luxuriously cast from the very smallest roles, Ben Johnson’s ringing tenor as Oronte and Wojtek Gierlach’s Melisso both impressed. It was Anna Devin’s Oberto that stood out, though, with her Act III aria rounding out the evening with appropriate fireworks. Even more impressive was Christine Rice – though she has been moving into heavier repertoire lately, her rich, even voice has lost none of its flexibility. Though Bradamante sits slightly low for her voice, her flawless coloratura in “Vorrei vendicarmi” brought the house down.

Alice Coote was her fiancé, Ruggiero, a signature role for her for over a decade now. Her voice has lost some of its sheen – her high notes can be uneven and coloratura a bit rough, and she was clearly more comfortable in Ruggiero’s lyrical Act II arias than in the coloratura pyrotechnics of the outer acts. Nevertheless, her intelligence and commitment remain as potent as ever, and her “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” was some of the most ravishing singing of the evening. At the other end of the spectrum was Anna Christy’s Morgana, whose pearly soprano easily encompasses all of the role’s considerable demands. Despite her easy high Es in “Tornami a vagheggiar” and finesse in the long lines of “Credete al mio dolore”, she never projected more than a generalized cuteness in a role that should dazzle in its flighty sexiness.

The success of the evening, however, really depends on its leading lady, and fortunately Joyce DiDonato did not disappoint. Five years after her successful recording with Alan Curtis, her voice and presence have grown to make the titular sorceress one of her most complete role assumptions to date. Appropriately dressed in a dramatic Vivienne Westwood gown that transformed every act, she fully realized Alcina’s pride, seductiveness, and ultimately, her crushing insecurity. Clearly in love with Ruggiero from the beginning, the extent of Alcina’s insecurity was made clear in a dangerously slow “Si, son quella”, and culminated in a devastating “Ah, mio cor”. A few treacherous high passages aside, the role is an ideal fit for DiDonato’s voice, and allows her to use a broad spectrum of colours in all of Alcina’s six arias. She liberally ornamented her arias, but they were intelligent and in character rather than gratuitous.

Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote © Mark Allan | Barbican
Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote
© Mark Allan | Barbican

With a mostly excellent cast then, what prevented the evening from being as spectacular as it could have been? Unfortunately, much of the blame falls on conductor and harpsichordist Harry Bicket. Despite its dramatic storyline, Alcina is notable for having absolutely no ensembles with one exception – apart from the trio at the end of Act III, the rest of the evening is comprised of a long string of da capo arias. Entire sections of successive arias were taken at roughly the same tempo, resulting in an overall sense of sameness. In addition, Alcina is one of Handel’s most exuberant orchestral scores – the virtuosic overture and the addition of horns in “Sta nell’ircana” surely look forward to his later orchestral suites. Instead, the English Concert was reduced to a background role, apart from a few violin and cello cadenzas. The orchestra certainly did play with their customary virtuosity, but it was all rather low-voltage. Overall, it was an evening full of excellent, often exceptional singing that failed to truly take off. Despite this, it was truly a pleasurable evening at the theatre, and Handel’s music, like its titular sorceress, never fails to enchant.