Alcina by Essential Opera was my second consecutive night of Händel, following my second viewing of the Canadian Opera Company’s unorthodox production of Semele. I hope I can be forgiven for making comparisons, but I think it’s relevant given that Toronto Händel lovers will have seen the COC’s show (with or without the umlaut). Unlike Semele, no Händel lover would have walked out of Essential Opera’s Alcina, which didn’t employ any puppets or dancing horses, just singers & musicians. Alcina was a much more respectful treatment even though it was only semi-staged.
- Where the COC employed a modern orchestra, Essential Opera engaged a chamber ensemble consisting of two violins, two oboes, viola, cello & harpsichord, often deployed solely as cello (the exquisitely tuneful Laura Jones) + keys (the reliable Lysiane Boulva).
- Notwithstanding the friendly acoustic of the Four Seasons Centre, that space was a yawning cavern in comparison to the friendly confines of the Trinity St Paul’s Centre, a haven for these voices
- Both productions were in quasi-sacred spaces, Semele staged on a 450 year old Buddhist temple re-assembled on the Four Seasons Centre stage, Alcina in the Trinity St Paul’s sanctuary. This is curiously apt, when we remember that Alcina concerns magic. Music is a church’s ultimate magic trick, at least temporarily converting atheists into believers, uniting believer and non-believer in its passionate tsunami.
- Both productions embraced da capo elaborations: the jazzy creativity on the repeated verse of baroque arias.
- [added saturday…something i was too tired to articulate last night] And both operas are preoccupied with one of the fundamental issues in drama, namely the reconciliation of illusion and reality. As such, both operas can comfortably be presented without any sort of verisimilitude, and indeed invite imaginary engagement. Whether one goes off on the tangents of the COC Semele or one presents Alcina in Essential Opera’s semi-staged format, the audience is happily inspired by good musical performance to imagine almost anything.
Unfortunately there’s only the one night of Alcina, which offered many noteworthy portrayals. Vicki St Pierre, listed as the music director, displayed exemplary musicianship as Bradamante, the orchestra following her as assiduously as if she were the conductor: as the title “music director” would imply. St Pierre was so solidly positioned inside every phrase she sang, so comfortable whether opening her mouth to sing or simply underplaying her reactions to the odd situations, that she effortlessly added ironic twists & witty expressions on top of wonderful intonation & clear coloratura.
Erin Bardua as the title role had a much tougher path, given that Alcina gets none of the humour nor much audience sympathy. As a villainess Bardua created a powerful presence, showing us several different types of voice throughout. I was especially impressed with the delicacy of her reading in those moments when her power begins to slip, as in “Ombre pallide” in Act II and “Mi restano le lagrime” in Act III.
Soprano Maureen Batt gave us a Morgana blending comedy and poignancy, sung with tenderness and a vulnerability well-suited to the intimate space. Julie Ludwig in the small part of Oberto said what everyone wanted to say in her brief aria denouncing Alcina, with an especially passionate explosion in the da capo verse.
Opera Atelier veteran Vilma Vitols was convincing as Ruggiero, in what I think of as the hardest role in the opera. A good Ruggiero is like a special effect, making us believe in Alcina’s magic: which is exactly what Vitols accomplished.
As if Batt & Bardua weren’t busy enough, they also operate, program & manage Essential Opera: which might explain why they chose an opera with two wonderful roles for themselves. The only two male roles in the opera, sung by baritone James Levesque (Melisso) and Cory Knight( Oronte), nicely balance the predominantly female blend of voices.