The Kennedy Center will bring the year's Handel Festival to a close at 2 p.m. this afternoon with one of the most brilliant of all Handel operas, "Alcina," a work in which Handel's design was greatly influenced by one of the most famous dancers in history.
The year 1735 was a vintage one for Handel. That spring he gave an unprecendented series of 15 performances of his oratorios "Esther," "Deborah" and "Athalia." Each of these he helped to make more irresistible to his public by playing one of his new organ concertos between the acts. It was also in 1735 that two of the most unusual and appealing of all Handel's operas were first heard: "Ariodante" and "Alcina." Both are known as "scenic," because of their special pictorial effects - crumbling castles and that sort of thing - and each is labeled, for very good reasons, one of the composer's "French" operas.
The previous year in London, the great French ballerina, Marie Salle, had created her most famous work, the ballet-pantomine "Pygmalion," in which she impersonated with overwhelming effect the statue with which Pygmalion fell in love. In Paris, Salle and her contemporary, Marie Camargo, were rivals at the time when tradition in ballet, known as "pure dance," was being challenged by what were known as "literary" ballets.
One writer told how, in "Pygmalion," Salle "has dared to appear without pannier, skirt or bodice, and her head down; she did not wear a single ornament on her head. Apart from her corset and petticoat she wore only a simple dress of muslin draped about her in the manner of a Greek statue." It all sounds very much like a pre-vision of George Balanchine over 200 years later!
Salle had danced in London earlier, in 1725, when, at the age of 18, she appeared in Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. But in 1734, she and her company danced at Covent Garden where a few months later Handel's new operas were to be heard. Handel, one of history's insatiable men of the theater, had been smitten by the novel beauty of Salle's ideas. It is no wonder, then, that "Ariodante," which appeared in January, 1735, and "Alcina," which emerged three months later, were visually enhanced, to a degree not previously seen in any Handel opera, by numerous dance scenes. Salle herself danced in the premiere of "Alcina."
With some of the greatest music Handel put into any opera - the dramatic scene "Ombre pallida" is unrivaled in all music - a strong cast, and the novelty of dances marked by simplicity and grace, it is no surprise that "Alcina" was heard 24 times in its first two years. Handel chose it for the opening night of his 1736 season and was rewarded for the choice by the presence of the prince of Wales.
Some idea of the kind of dance Handel admired in Salle, and wanted in "Alcina," can be glimpsed in the description of Salle that was written by her close friend and admirer, the famous dancer and choreographer, Jean Georges Noverre. He wrote, "She replaced tinsel glitter by simple and touching graces. Her physionomy was noble, sensitive, and expressive. Her voluptuous dancing was written with as much finesse as lightness; it was not by leaps and frolics that she went to your heart."
"Alcina" is the 36th in the list of 46 operas Handel wrote, counting as two works the widely separated versions of "Il Pastor Fido." Its story, a fairy tale, is taken from a source Handel had used previously, Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso." The plot gives Handel characters and situations that suit him perfectly: first of all, a powerful sorceress who is also a handsome, warm-hearted woman in love.
Since she is, however, a sorceress, the rules of baroque opera, which not even a Handel dared to break, dictated that her special powers must not be permitted to win out at the end of the opera when true human love, justice and right must all be allowed to triumph. The way this seeming dilemma is worked out is that once Alcina genuinely falls in love with a human being, Ruggiero, and he with her, she loses her special powers, so that in the end, her fabulous castle falls in ruins and she turns into a hideous old woman.
We don't mind this apparently heartless conclusion too much since earlier in the opera, Alcina, in order to remove unwanted rivals, or just to be generally confusing if not downright unpleasant, turns several of her lovers temporarily into monsters.
The music that accompanies all these typically baroque goings-on encompases all the moods that Handel most loved to include in his operas: tender love scenes, raging jealousy, violent anger and deep human sympathy. One indication of the brilliant character of the opera can be seen in the fact that it was in the title role that Joan Sutherland chose to make both her Italian and her U.S. debuts. The first of these took place at La Fenice in Venice, in a production designed by Franco Zeffirelli, a production that was later brought over to Dallas where the second debut occurred.
The score is, in short, a succession of superb arias whose assorted beauties are appealing enough to give the work drawing power even without the visual attractions of fantastic scenery, costumes, lighting and the dances.