SEATTLE – George Frideric Handel’s operas don’t amass a lot of stage time in the United States. Seattle Opera has presented only four in its 60-year existence.
The fourth, which continues through Oct. 28 at SO’s McCaw Hall, is Alcina–and what a playfully sexy choice it was, cleverly stage-directed by British-born Tim Albery, known for his taut, poetic presentations. The production should convince the opera world to give Handel a 21st-century reboot.
The music of Handel’s operas is neither complex nor alienating, but the singers are hard to find. Alcina requires, as do many of Handel’s pieces, a countertenor, whose part in the old days was sung by castrati (boys castrated before puberty to provide high voices because women and girls were banned from singing in the church or onstage) and for whom Handel consistently and enthusiastically composed. Castrati were a big deal in Handel’s time, many of them period rock stars. Since the 19th century when the gelding practice was banned, though it was never lawful, countertenors have been few and far between. Usually the countertenor parts, often considered “trouser” roles, are filled by mezzo-sopranos.
But this time a 6-foot-3-inch Viking of a man Randall Scotting undertook the powerful countertenor part of Ruggiero and filled out a cast of six wonderful singers, including two sopranos, two mezzos, a tenor and himself, who sang in an uncanny falsetto-like upper register, certainly a new listening experience for many opera goers. Forget baritones, basses, or a chorus. Handel likes to write for the higher voices. Contrary to the Baroque tendency to be overblown, ornamental and over- the-top, this opera was performed by a sleek cast of six, often onstage at once.The singers didn’t perform ensemble pieces (until the end, and a bit at the beginning), but they did sing one beautiful solo da capo aria after another, prompting a response with another beautiful three-part aria. Certainly the singers used plenty of vocal ornamentation, a Baroque singing technique that uses many sounds for one syllable (melisma), and provides a way to show off a good voice.
The story, however, is Baroque in all ways of excess. Sorceress Alcina (soprano Vanessa Goikoetxea) — think Circe — seduces Ruggiero, who washes up on her shore, separated from his wife, Bradamante (mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson). Bradamante disguises herself as a man (her brother) and sets out to find her lost husband Ruggiero, with Melissa (mezzo Nina Yoshida Nelsen) the “good” rather nondescript sorcerer — perhaps she was supposed to seem invisible. Melissa is a role that Handel designed for a bass, and it was gender-swapped in this production. She sings the opera’s lowest note, an E below middle C.
When they arrive at Alcina’s place, Alcina and Ruggiero are deeply in lust (maybe in love) and Morgana (soprano Sharleen Joynt), Alcina’s extroverted and bored sister, tries to seduce Bradamante, whom she thinks is a man. Sex roles are confused and gender-bent, and the besotted Ruggiero takes forever to recognize his true wife. As well, he is under the threat of being turned into a beast if he displeases Alcina. A rug with the head of a bearlike beast lies among the chairs to remind him, and as the opera progresses, his glances at the furry rug become more fearful.
As for realizing Bradamante is his wife, that comes in the second act, when she strips down to her bustier, following other characters who have thrown off layers of clothes while singing in awkward positions. Perhaps the slow striptease shows their vulnerability but it also keeps alive our attention and anticipation in this 2 hour-40 minute performance – not that everyone disrobes at the same time. Each new striptease interjects humor, of which this show has plenty. Alcina, defeated in her efforts to continue to enchant Ruggiero, toward the opera’s end, crawls around covered in the beast rug, stripped bare to expose the defeated emotions that Handel so masterfully tries to show. During these moments we realize the singers are agile magicians at producing gorgeous music whether engaging in sex, seducing, arguing, crawling under chairs, or throwing off a sock as charmingly illustrated by Oronte (Tacoma tenor John Marzana), Morgana’s spurned husband who endures the rest of the opera in his two-piece modest black underwear.
Alcina, the star — though, really, this was an ensemble piece that doled out big parts to each of the singers — had a remarkably huge and vibrant voice. You could have heard her miles away, and her soaring soprano could be either fierce or tender with colors in between. Her voice produced a wide range of emotions with each aria. She kept our hearts beating, especially in the second act.
The visual vibe was un-Baroque. Dual scenic and costume designer Hannah Clark created both in contemporary style, sorceress aside, while Ian William Galloway designed the moody, muted and undistracting video. A number of multi-purpose Mid-Century-Modern-ish teal and turquoise chairs were scattered around the stage, designed for arguments, love or sex, and the large onstage screen flashed video behind the set that made the audience feel as if it were riding waves or stepping into the surrounding jungle. The staging concept was stunningly pared down, studded by onstage lights that rose and fell.
Then there were the costumes. Soprano Joynt, who sang Morgana, the sexually preoccupied sister of sorceress Alcina, wore a cocktail dress that Dolce & Gabbana could have designed, accessorized with a pair of patent leather ballet flats, while Alcina moved with utter grace in long classic mermaid dresses — pale, flared and modest in the first act when she is in control; black and “diamond”-studded in the second act that emphasized her elegance, despair and aging.
There was so much to like about this production. Christine Brandes, a former opera singer, conducted the small orchestra with the continuo group of harpsichord, theorbo and baroque guitar. Most of the singers and major production people were making their SO debuts in this opera that premiered in 1735 in London, and I’m sure members of that talented crew will be back.
At the rate Seattle Opera has presented Handel works, it will be about 350 years before it is able to perform all of Handel’s 42 operas, said SO’s Lokela Alexander Minami, who gave a pre-show lecture. Too bad we won’t have enough time on Earth to see them all.