Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artists brought off another astonishing coup Friday with their performances in Handel’s 1735 opera, Alcina, aided and abetted by music director Timothy Cheung and stage director Fenlon Lamb.
Cheung’s grand piano was surrounded by a raised platform: it sat in the middle of the action, providing guidance and control in a staging that was put together in less than a week. Eight white Doric pillars of varying heights were capped by gilded mythic beasts (Queen Alcina’s rejected lovers, perhaps?) The set looked elegant and royal with swaths of gold draperies on the back wall. Two chaise longues, left and right, added style, drawing the whole together. Kudos to the designers who made less look like more.
Handel’s music is a test for even the best singers with its required long runs and frequent trills. Getting the breathing right between phrases is all-important: a break in a run could bring howls of derision from the claque back in 1735.
Handel carefully tailored his arias to each singer’s abilities. Covent Garden audiences heard 18 performances at Alcina’s opening, far more than the rival London company known as “Opera of the Nobility,” whom Handel had “vanquished,” wrote Charles Burney. The good doctor also opined that Alcina “should be brought on the stage in its entirety without change or mixture of airs from other operas.” He felt it could sustain such revivals. I tend to disagree. Modern audiences need Handel in short doses like this.
Imagine, then, the handwringing at Palm Beach Opera when Handel’s three-and-a-half-hour opera had to be reduced to just about one hour to fit the One Opera in One Hour series at the Harriet Himmel Theater in West Palm Beach’s CityPlace. Convoluted as the plot certainly is, a genius somewhere got the truncation absolutely spot on.
Cutting arias is one thing, but cutting recitatives, which in those days moved the plot along, could spell disaster. Boiled down to one-and-a-quarter hours, this production met with warm appreciative applause from a nicely filled theatre. Handel’s other operas deserve such treatment.
The two sopranos, Bridgette Gan as Morgana and Claire Kuttler as Queen Alcina, had the worst of it, with arias set so high in their tessitura as to be uncomfortable at times, stretching their young voices to the limit. As Handel tailored arias to his singers, Cheung could have transposed the soprano arias down a peg or two.
The plot: Alcina is an enchantress and queen. Ruggiero, a knight, is under her spell. His girlfriend, Bradamante, dresses as her brother Ricciardo, and with Melisso her guardian, goes to win him back. Morgana, the queen’s attendant, falls for the disguised Bradamante, who is cool to her advances. Ruggeiro, still under Alcina’s spell, does not believe it is his sweetheart when Bradamante reveals herself.
Oronte, an important soldier to the queen, reconciles with old love Morgana, after she can’t make it with Bradamante/Ricciardo. Melisso gives Ruggiero a magic ring to ward off the queen’s ability to “freeze” former lovers into wild beasts or stones. The queen gets mad, threatening to turn him into stone, but she can’t. The ring’s magic is too strong. Battle commences.
Ruggiero wins and frees the wild beasts and stones, rejected lovers of the queen, and is reunited with his fiancée Bradamante. In a noble act, he frees Oronte by returning his sword, which he lost in battle.
The costumes were simple but effective. Modern dress tuxedos for the men, with relevant insignia and classy black cocktail-length dresses for the women, adorned with brilliant jewels to suggest status. Brav’s to Emily Morgan DeAngelis, costume supervisor.
Singing Alcina, Kuttler gave a brave performance. Her excellent acting got her through with honors, but the part is set far too high for her voice type. Trills were glanced over and the difficult runs had breaks, cleverly disguised by her excellent phrasing, kept wishing for her to move into her head tone, which is very lovely when she uses it. Transposed downward, Kuttler would have nailed the part. Her crowning glory was her aria sung from high atop the Himmel stage as she realizes her defeat by Ruggiero. It won appreciative warm applause.
Gan, as Morgana, was equally challenged by the high tessitura required by Handel. Ever threatening, her evil side was very convincing. Her lovely voice, too, was stretched way beyond its young vocal cords at times. But her runs were perfection. After her touching scene with Bradamante posing as Ricciardo, Gan lets off a bunch of Handelian “fireworks” that could be heard in the Florida Keys. What a joy to hear her sing with such earnest conviction.
Tenor Nicholas Nestorak as the soldier Oronte, sang his runs well in the scene he has when he warns Ruggiero of Alcina’s treachery. But he, too, went off key a couple of times. Sustaining Handel’s long line is no easy task and needs lots of vocalise beforehand. Nestorak seemed happier in Handel’s lower register in this opera, in which he was able to show off his bel canto control to best advantage.
The mezzo-sopranos fared better. Rachel Arky as Bradamante had a lovely aria hoping to find love again with her betrothed Ruggiero. Her command of Handel was superb all night. And JoAna Rusche as Ruggiero had some beautiful moments when singing of “Green meadows”: it was an empathetically sung role from beginning to end, with a richly round vocal production.
Bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski, as Melisso, had a melodious aria about the cruelty of Ruggiero’s abandonment of Bradamante, which he sang well and provided reassurance that all would be well as he passed the magic ring to Ruggiero. A fine quartet ends this clever reduction.
Kudos to the lighting director, Ardean Landhuis, whose special effects and good lighting gave this opera an extra boost. All the singers must be proud of their wonderful achievement in pulling it off in so short a time. It may well set an example of how well a Handel opera can be performed without all the repeats that become so boring in his full-length operatic productions. I say: Cut. Forget the traditionalists. Bring all of Handel’s 38 operas to the masses in an hour!
The Young Artists can be heard next in the company’s first Liederabend at 6:30 pm Thursday, March 27, at the Royal Poinciana Chapel on Palm Beach. Admission is $10; call 833-7888 for ticket information.