Which is most important in an opera: the words or the music? Richard
Strauss asks in Capriccio. The answer in Handel’s 18th
century London might well have been: the theatre machinery! Yes,
the visual aspect was central with spectacular sets and changes
of scenes tending to overshadow the music and a good ballet could
outdo excellent singing. But virtuoso singers, mainly castratos,
were in great demand and when a full-blooded musician like Handel
composed operas he wasn’t content to write background music; nor
did he give in to star singers’ demands for showpieces. He wanted
to get behind the surface and delineate the soul of his characters.
was premiered at Covent Garden on 16 April 1735 it was
a success thanks to imaginative sets, thanks to the ballet
but also thanks to the music. What especially thrilled the
audience was the character of Ruggiero, sung by the castrato
Giovanni Carestini, a singer on the level of the famous Farinelli.
Ruggiero is one of the most rounded characters in all Handel’s
operas and today, when the castrato is extinct, it is a dream
role for a good mezzo-soprano. But there are several juicy
roles in this opera. The title role is of equal importance,
even though Ruggiero’s music is more inspired. Alcina’s sister
Morgana is also a central character with several fine arias.
Ruggiero’s betrothed Bradamante and the warrior Oronte are
also well catered for musically. Recorded opera, without the
visual element, is only a truncated experience but with inspired
music, a good cast and the libretto in hand one can still
get something to enliven the soul.
The libretto for
Alcina is based on the 6th and 7th
songs of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. The story
goes like this: Bradamante, disguised as her brother, the
soldier Ricciardo, is together with Melisso searching for
her betrothed Ruggiero. They are shipwrecked and have landed
on Alcina’s enchanted island, where they meet Alcina’s sister
Morgana, who falls in love with ‘Ricciardo’. They are brought
to Alcina’s palace, where they meet Ruggiero, but he is so
under Alcina’s spell that he doesn’t bother about Bradamante.
Alcina’s general Oronte, who is in love with Morgana, tries
to get rid of ‘Ricciardo’ and warns Ruggiero that Alcina is
attracted by ‘Ricciardo’. Oronte suggests that ‘Ricciardo’
should be turned into an animal, which has been the fate of
all Alcina’s previous lovers. Ruggiero doesn’t believe what
he is told and remains impassive when Bradamante reveals her
real identity. Morgana and Melisso try to persuade Bradamante
to leave the island.
In the second
act Melisso manages to break the spell that Alcina has over
Ruggiero. Alcina’s attempts to charm ‘Ricciardo’ are unsuccessful.
Now she plans to transform him, but Morgana interferes. Ruggiero
declares that he still loves Alcina but Oronte tells Alcina
the truth: that Ruggiero plans to leave, and he also reveals
‘Ricciardo’s’ true identity. Bradamante and Ruggiero are reconciled.
In the third act
Morgana eventually accepts Oronte’s love. Bradamante has decided
to liberate Alcina’s former lovers from their spell before
she and Ruggiero leave. Together they manage to crush the
urn containing Alcina’s magic powers. Alcina and Morgana dissolve
and the former lovers are restored to their true identities.
They sing a chorus of gratefulness, ending: Our hearts
are now filled with happiness. A lot of witchcraft and
intrigue – a true baroque opera in many respects and as it
is a fairytale a happy end is to be expected.
To my knowledge
there have been three complete recordings of Handel’s Alcina.
The pioneering version was issued by Decca almost 45 years
ago. Conducted by Richard Bonynge, with Joan Sutherland in
the title role, Teresa Berganza in the trouser-role of Ruggiero,
Graziella Sciutti singing Morgana and Luigi Alva and Mirella
Freni in supporting roles this was one of the first recordings
to catch something of the true Handelian style. Today it may
seem slightly dated but for pure singing the cast is hard
to beat. It was more than twenty years before it was challenged
by an EMI recording, conducted by Richard Hickox, with Arleen
Augér as Alcina, Della Jones as Ruggiero and Eiddwen Harrhy
as Morgana. Less magnificently cast this version is probably
even more in tune with what today is regarded as authentic
performance practice. Then in the year 2000 Erato issued a
live recording from Palais Garner in Paris, conducted by baroque
specialist William Christie with his own Les Arts Florissants
and with three present day superstars in the leads: Renée
Fleming as Alcina, Susan Graham as Ruggiero and Natalie Dessay
as Morgana. This version was supposed to sweep the board.
I haven’t heard it but opinions have been divided. Christie
seems to have adopted some strangely slow tempos and Fleming,
for all her beauty of voice, isn’t exactly a leading exponent
in the early music stakes.
This is, however,
what Ivor Bolton is and his readings of baroque and Viennese
classicism have always been inspired. Even though the Bayerisches
Staatsorchester play on modern instruments Bolton has opted
for baroque style playing with little vibrato and ‘air’ between
the notes. The result is wholly idiomatic with springy rhythms
and crisp sounds. Bolton is not one to linger unduly – his
music making always has clear direction. Handel’s expert instrumentation
with a lot of instrumental solos is brought out with elegance
and the excellent SACD recording is well balanced to bring
give full justice to the playing. What it also brings out
– and it is a less welcome feature – is a plethora of bangs
and bumps from, I presume, stamping people, slamming doors
and – why not – physical violence. This is what we have to
expect from live recordings but the realism is so overwhelming
that a couple of times I had to crouch behind my chair. It
is less disturbing when one watches a performance – live or
on DVD – when one can relate the noises to the action. Applause
after some arias is retained, sometimes quite extended, and
this can be tiring on repeated listenings but it also enhances
the feeling of being there – and the applause is mostly well
The real star
of the performance is Vesselina Kasarova, who is in tremendous
form. She is assured, technically superb, beautiful of tone
and expressive, whether it be in dramatic arias like Di
te mi redo in act 1, or inward as in the beautiful Verdi
prati that ends act 2. The greatest ovations come after
her dramatic and swinging third act aria Sta nell’Ircana
pietrosa tana. Try to listen to any of these arias and
I bet you will be bowled over. I was less enthusiastic about
Anja Harteros’s Alcina, superb artist as she is. Technically
as well as emotionally her reading of the demanding role could
hardly be bettered with fine legato singing, exacting coloratura
and sensitive phrasing. Sadly the actual tune has a tendency
to be shrill and sometimes fluttery – it grates on the ear.
Her first aria, Di’ cor mio, quanto t’ami is very uneven.
She improves, however, and Si son quella is much more
controlled and nuanced, filled with sorrow and pain. Even
better is her big act 2 aria Ah! Mio cor! where she
certainly lives up to her reputation. Veronica Cangemi was
a new name to me but she impressed greatly as Morgana. Her
light and bright voice is well suited to Tornami a vagheggiar;
maybe the best known music in the opera, and Ama, sospira
in act 2 is even better, beautifully and sensitively sung.
Sonia Prina as Bradamante is another light voice but she is
also extremely accomplished, warm of tone and technically
brilliant. Vorrei vendicarmi in act 2 is baroque singing
of the highest order.
John Mark Ainsley
seldom disappoints and as a warrior he has a lot of dramatic
music to execute. Semplicetto! A donna credi? In act
1 is a fine calling-card. He really excels in the lively and
virtuoso è un folle, è un vile affetto in act 2. Deborah
York’s warm and angelic voice is always a pleasure to hear
but she is embarrassingly out of tune a couple of times. Melisso
primarily takes part in recitatives but he is vouchsafed an
aria in act 2 and Christopher Purves does what he can with
his rather anonymous music.
Readers who must
have a studio recording of this work are advised to buy the
Bonynge or – for a more period-conscious version – Hickox.
However, the present version has a lot of strengths and few
weaknesses and can be confidently acquired.