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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Alcina (1735)
Anja Harteros (soprano) – Alcina; Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo) – Ruggiero; Veronica Cangemi (soprano) – Morgana; Sonia Prina (soprano) – Bradamante; John Mark Ainsley (tenor) – Oronte; Deborah York (soprano) – Oberto; Christopher Purvis (baritone) – Melisso; Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Ivor Bolton
rec. live, Munich Prinzregententheater, Munich Opera Festival, July 2005
Italian libretto with German and English translations enclosed
FARAO CLASSICS S108080 [3 CDs: 57:56 + 66:47 + 69:20]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

When Alcina 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 deserved.

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.

Göran Forsling 





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