Handel With Care: A Revealing 'Alcina' at the Wolf Trap Barns

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

How Handel has changed. A few decades ago, his operas were thought to be undramatic, boring and unperformable. Today, they have become a significant part of the international repertory, generally offered in fresh, lively and vaguely pastoral productions filled with young singers in modified 18th-century garb, the music more or less informed by research into period practice.

"Alcina," which opened Friday at the Barns at Wolf Trap, fits right into this 21st-century Handelian mold. The second of the Wolf Trap Opera Company's three productions at the Barns this summer, it has the good young singers, the general brightness, and respectable musical support from conductor Eric Melear and an instrumental ensemble, including an especially hardworking continuo trio of cello, theorbo and harpsichord at one side of the stage.

"Alcina" is an exception to the idea that Handel's operas are more popular in the aggregate than individually. It is up there with "Giulio Cesare" in the pantheon of the composer's most played, most recorded works. Based on a section of Ariosto's epic poem "Orlando Furioso," it is set on a magical island (indicated in Erhard Rom's set design by the presence of giant ocean waves all around the stage) where the sorceress Alcina dallies with and then discards her lovers, transforming the castoffs into stones, animals or, in this production by Eric Einhorn, stony-faced valets dressed in ghostly white. She saves, however, their head shots, taping them to the walls of a hidden cabinet much as the owner of a corner diner preserves snapshots of his second-tier celebrity patrons. This is revealed to the current object of her affection, Ruggiero, as the scales of enchantment fall from his eyes.

Einhorn, in short, has done away with the sorceress's magic, a reasonable enough way to approach the challenge of translating Handel's dramas to our own time. His characters wear 18th-century garb, but as a costume they slip into; there is much taking off of clothes in the second half of the piece as true identities are revealed. Alcina's magic is symbolic rather than literal. She has "bewitched" Ruggiero in the sense that any lover bewitches her beloved, and it is she who becomes the victim when Ruggiero sees the light and returns to his fiancee, Bradamante, leaving Alcina bereft.

To illustrate this, Einhorn had his Alcina, Rebekah Camm, remove her gorgeous raiment in her scene of despair the end of Act 2, leaving her in a revealing flimsy slip with a bald head crowned with straggling tufts of hair. Camm is not a small woman, and it took considerable bravery to expose herself so literally. But the gesture made a powerful dramatic point about the character's feeling of vulnerability and, by extension, her motives in ensnaring so many men.

Camm's singing also rose to the occasion here. Hers is a curious voice: a lovely soprano, but often underpowered. In big dramatic moments, she showed tremendous volume and strength. But at other times her sound could be thin, even wavery. The issue appeared to be one of vocal support, not of ability. At moments not requiring major drama, her intensity flagged as well as her volume.

Which brings me to a long-standing beef I have about presenting Handel operas with young singers. Handel was writing for the superstars of his time, and this is the aspect of his work that is least often represented in contemporary productions. (One of the most successful features of the Washington National Opera's "Tamerlano" this past spring was that, mounted for Placido Domingo, it retained this star quality and sense of event.) The intimacy of the Barns, to be sure, is a help in that it emphasizes the physicality of the voices, something often lost in larger halls. But young artists are often hard pressed to deliver the levels of charisma or virtuosity that the music requires.

This criticism is not a specific dig at Friday's generally able cast. Particularly successful was Ava Pine as Alcina's flaky sister, Morgana. She played the role as a ditsy blonde, offering gems like "Tornami a vagheggiar," one of the work's hit tunes, with a zany relish and a cool soprano. Her lover Oronte, first rejected and then rejoined, was played by the tenor Steven Sanders with a comparable dramatic weight, though his sizable voice was slightly tight in its delivery. Elizabeth DeShong was a doughty, workmanlike Ruggiero. Maria Markina, another mezzo, had a rounder tone as Bradamante; Liam Moran, a bass who has not yet found the upper part of his voice, was slightly callow as the tutor Melisso; and Leena Chopra was endearing as the young boy Oberto, who is on the island to find his father. In the libretto, his father has been turned into a lion. Here, he was simply another pallid valet, who was set free from the enchantment in the course of the happy ending. Here, the focus on the voices came into its own; Wolf Trap's chorus, made up of the company's apprentice artists, is excellent.

"Alcina" has a final performance tomorrow night at 8.

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