What makes opera relevant? In the case of Washington National Opera's "Alcina," it may be the production team.
The conductor coaxing such sinuous and sometimes vehement sounds out of the Washington National Opera Orchestra is a woman, Jane Glover, making an assured company debut. The director responsible for the thoughtful character portrayals is a woman, Anne Bogart. Most of the singers, of course, are women, including in some of the roles written for male castrati, like Ruggiero. The impressive Elizabeth DeShong sang the part with a firm voice, looking a bit like Melissa McCarthy's impersonation of Sean Spicer.
The costumes were loosely updated to the present day — the men wore contemporary military uniforms rather than Renaissance warrior garb. ("Alcina" is based on an episode in Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso.") But there was no overt updating in this minimalist production; the main visual focus of Neil Patel's simple set was a circular cutout on the back wall. So if this production really related to today, it was in the still too-rare specter, in this field, of having women unobtrusively take the lead.
Bogart might disagree about the relevance: "Alcina," she said in a program note, is about short attention spans, illusion and addiction, all contemporary topics. The sorceress Alcina (Angela Meade) seduces one man after another, then quickly tires of them and turns them into animals or rocks so she can move on to the next.
But short attention spans don't fare well with Handel's long, long strings of showpiece arias, linked together by slender threads of recitative, written at a time ("Alcina" premiered in 1735) when the spectacle of someone in a gorgeous costume singing rapid-fire music for seven or eight minutes at a stretch was breathtakingly compelling. Our expectations of drama are different today, and it's hard to keep these works from seeming static. Although each aria shows a character at a moment of particular intensity or crisis, the result — certainly in this play-it-straight production — is an unalleviated tone of heightened emotion, which made me sympathize with the tendency of many directors in the past couple of decades to camp Handel up.
On Saturday at the Eisenhower Theater — a space certainly better suited to Handel's scale than the Kennedy Center Opera House — we got a lot of good, slightly overearnest singing. The evening took its tone from Meade, a soprano whose large and beautiful voice is offset with phlegmatic singing that, on Saturday night, almost sank her. She sang correctly, but without buoyancy, so that the chains of coloratura emerged like little leaden pellets. And her presentation of her character's emotion was so unvaried that the transition from insouciant enchantress to abandoned lover — which represents the work's main dramatic motor — never quite came into focus.
Still, it was a strong cast. As the ingénue Morgana, Alcina's sister, the rising soprano Ying Fang demonstrated a clear limpid voice and a vivid stage presence, though James Schuette's costumes were so unflattering across the board to the female figure that he made even this slender singer look a little awkward. Daniela Mack showed tremendous ardor as Bradamante, who disguises herself as her brother, just in case there wasn't enough gender fluidity going on, to rescue her beloved Ruggiero. And DeShong sang powerfully, with a resonant lower voice and a firm command of her notes and her character, who spends the evening being first bewitched by Alcina and then equally besotted with Bradamante. The baritone Michael Adams, a current member of the Domingo-Cafritz program, was impressive in the small role of Melisso, and the tenor Rexford Tester as Oronte, who gets dumped and then reclaimed by Morgana, had a couple of good outings.
There are plenty of contemporary messages you could draw from "Alcina," as Bogart's note demonstrated, and her production left plenty of room for viewers to make the connections, while pleasingly aestheticizing the work with its gleaming surfaces and gentle choreographic inserts. The result is a pleasant enough entertainment. But I'm not sure there's enough "there" there in the material Handel provided for anyone to come away with a sense of fulfillment without a little more explicit directorial guidance — or a stronger performer in the title role.
"Alcina" continues through Nov. 19. The performance on Nov. 18 will be cast entirely with current members of the Domingo-Cafritz program.