George Friederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alcina – opera seria (1728) [205:00] Behind the Scenes – documentary [21:00]
Alcina - Anja Harteros (soprano)
Ruggiero - Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo)
Morgana - Veronica Cangemi (soprano)
Bradamante - Kristina Hammarström (mezzo)
Oberto - Alois Mühlbacher (boy soprano)
Oronte - Benjamin Bruns (tenor)
Melisso - Adam Plachetka (bass)
Vienna State Opera Ballet
Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble/Marc Minkowski
Adrian Noble: stage director
Picture format 1080i; Sound format: PCM stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0; Region Code 0 (Worldwide), Subtitles: EN, DE, FR, ES, IT, KO.
rec. 2010 Vienna State Opera.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 108028 [226:00]
For this staging of Alcina, director Adrian Noble chose to set the story in the country home of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. There, a number of guests are performing a play within the play. However, without reading the DVD’s liner-notes this is not at all apparent. The only clue is that the set that opens the opera - a large wood-panelled room - opens onto a field of tall dune grass (the opera is set on an island) very early on. What began as wood panelling turns into vibrant green with a rich blue sky. Much of the staging from that point on is colourful; not only the acting and dancing, but the costumes, the lighting, and the sets. As the opera goes on, and night falls, the blue sky turns to star-studded pitch, and the lighting on the stage becomes more nocturnal, as does the overall ambience.
The stage in the Wiener Staatsoper is fairly narrow, giving an intimate atmosphere, but also preventing the performers from moving around much. The result is an essentially static series of tableaux. Granted, all opera is static in nature - otherwise the singers couldn't sing very well - but at times you don't notice it as the action shifts from one side of the stage to another. Here, the singers could take about twenty steps to cross the stage, and since the sides of the stage are mostly in darkness, the actual space used for the performance is limited.
Some of that space is used in certain scenes for some of the musicians, who play as though they are in the play within the play. This is often the case for a continuo group (harpsichord, cello and theorbo) that accompanies recitatives, and sometimes for solo musicians as well. This can be heard from the violinist who plays next to Morgana in the aria "E la tua pace, con tanta crudelt, comprar si deve", where he literally takes centre-stage. This is a charming way of showing how Handel wrote certain arias as duets for singers and solo instruments. In fact, Alcina comes off here as a number of set-pieces for solo singer and small groups of musical instruments. Unlike Handel's operas where the chorus is frequently present - in Alcina, the chorus only comes in a couple of times. This is musically a much "smaller" work, where many of the arias are slow, melancholic, and feature just one obbligato instrument. Some of the long arias here are among Handel's most moving music.
The camera work is interesting and varied, switching between a fixed shot showing the entire stage to a number of different angles. I never had any feeling of the artificiality that sometimes comes through in poorly filmed operas. Many of the shots are from a camera exactly in the centre of the hall, facing the stage, showing the orchestra at the bottom, the performers on the stage above them, giving the view one would have sitting in the hall.
Then there is the music. Alcina has benefited from several recordings, led by William Christie, Alan Curtis, Richard Hickox and others, and one other filmed version is currently available. In this performance, the balance between Mark Minkowski's Musiciens du Louvre and the singers is perfect, and the recording is natural, with excellent sound. All of the soloists are excellent, and the audience doesn't hesitate to applaud after many of the arias. Anja Harteros is very moving as Alcina, especially in the long aria "Regina, sei tradita". Vesselina Kasarova is excellent as Ruggiero, though her acting and movements are a bit rigid. While this is essentially a feminine performance, Adam Plachetka gets a wonderful, long aria in the first act, and is greeted with well-deserved applause. One other highlight is the teenaged Alois Mühlbacher in the role of Oberto, who, if his voice doesn’t change too much, has an amazing career ahead of him as a counter-tenor. Some of the audience's most boisterous applause was for him after "Sin per le vie del sole" in act 3.
While visually attractive, this performance lacks overall drive, perhaps in part because of the limited physical space available for the characters. On the other hand, the quality of the filming, the excellent music and sound, and the tasteful design make this a delight to watch. It's a bit long - at nearly three and a half hours. While the visuals made me feel that length, the music is delightful enough to make me want to keep watching. Taken in isolation, many of the arias in this performance are exceptional, but they just don't coalesce into a whole. All in all, this is an enjoyable, though flawed, performance of some of Handel's most wonderful music.
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville (http://www.mcelhearn.com).
A fine staging of one of Handel’s most attractive operas.