Haendel : AlcinaNew York, 1983 (Audio)
Director: Raymond Leppard
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Alcina,opera in three acts by George Frideric Haendel; libretto by A. Marchi from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.
The New York City Opera took a fling with the theatrical avant-garde Thursday night, presenting Andrei Serban's relentlessly novel version of Handel's ''Alcina.'' The evening, though a trial of patience in many ways, was redeemed by stirring singing by Carol Vaness as the cruel enchantress Alcina and by a supporting cast that could not always meet Handel's fierce demands but came through with honor.
Setting a high standard musically was a City Opera orchestra that sounded unusually crisp and sonorous under the knowing direction of Raymond Leppard. The conductor's tempos were brisk, but never ran away from singers who were in danger of getting lost in the hills and valleys of Handel's vocal line. In a staging that must have placed a strain on their concentration, the seven principals actually managed to sound like opera singers most of the time.
However, on to the nonmusical aspects of the production, which were many. Mr. Serban has made a name in the serious theater, but in opera he may be no more than a trifler, one of those directors who approach a work with no other aim than to show their own cleverness and disdain for the medium. He put little or no faith in Handel's music, which he seemed not even to hear. He turned ''Alcina'' into an arcade game, with exaggerated business that continually distracted attention from the music and deprived it of emotional impact. Mr. Serban's ''Alcina'' is hardly more than a series of theatrical effects in search of dramatic and musical causes.
No doubt he and Beni Montresor, who designed the sets and costumes, can explain why the animals, who are Alcina's rejected and transformed lovers, are got up in tails and ball gowns. It's a whimsical idea, but is whimsy the point of ''Alcina''? Perhaps the director and designer know, too, why those vaguely l9th-century costumes make sense in an 18th-century composer's version of a 16th-century poet's tale as produced in a late-20th-century style that relies heavily on disco decor. Mr. Serban must think Handel cannot hold the interest of a modern audience without the support of incongruous designs and giggle-making pantomime.
Perhaps the idea is to make us see Handel - certainly not hear him - in a new, disorienting light. ''Alcina'' is, after all, a fantasy about a magic island ruled by a cruel and capricious sorceress. But Mr. Serban's idea of Handelian magic is mere jocularity. And so we have, for instance, a hopelessly giddy Morgana (Erie Mills) singing an extended dramatic piece while other characters skulk across the stage in search of hee-haws, destroying her music's line and structure.
Mr. Serban gives us a joke show with a few serious moments. In particular, Miss Mills is urged to indulge in a great deal of terribly cute acting. She is by nature a bright, sassy performer who doesn't need much encouragement in this direction. At one point, I believe, she kicks a male opponent in the groin to get a laugh.
Mr. Montresor's sets and costumes, minimal to the point of Abstract Expressionist austerity, are striking, though generally well beside the point. He achieves his effects almost without the use of props, by changing the lighting in startling ways, by throwing characters into silhouette, by making use of a mirrored floor and walls to create painterly images. Now and then, the Brechtian device of exposing backstage machinery is called upon, again for no discernible reason. Considered as a light show, entirely apart from the opera, it is all striking enough. Mark W. Stanley, in his City Opera debut, proved himself a lighting designer with an eye for blinding color contrasts and textures that hold some interest on their own account. But Handel? Please.
Still, with Mr. Leppard leading such a sprightly performance, this ''Alcina'' did what it could to please the ear. Miss Vaness, though somewhat edgy in tone at times, delivered her lofty music with great aplomb and security. Miss Mills, as Morgana, reclaimed the opera's most famous aria, ''Tornami a vagheggiar,'' which in the Joan Sutherland version was taken over by Alcina. Miss Mills, who has become a coloratura of real quality, negotiated it brilliantly while performing some especially silly stage business. D'Anna Fortunato, making her City Opera debut as Ruggiero, a role that Handel wrote for a castrato, forced her tone somewhat, but sounded fine in the gentle aria ''Verdi prati.'' She had a convincingly boyish carriage and an awareness of 18th- century vocal style that faddish direction could not obscure. The Cast
(Edited from the New York Times)