Thursday 5 March 2015

Handel - Alcina (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)

George Frideric Handel - Alcina

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015

Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Pierre Audi, Sandrine Piau, Maite Beaumont, Angélique Noldus, Sabina Puértolas, Chloé Briot, Daniel Behle, Giovanni Fulanetto, Edouard Higuet

La Monnaie, Culturebox, RTBF - February 2015

There's long been a belief that Baroque opera can't possibly be put performed in the manner in which it was originally intended, and indeed, it hardly serves any useful pupose to attempt to recreate the theatrical conditions of 300 years ago. If you're going to attempt a more 'authentic' experience of Baroque opera beyond the now more common use of period instruments however, the location needs to be right. The Drottningholm Slottsteater near Stockholm is one of the few working Baroque theaters in the world and seen in that context it's necessary and doubtlessly instructive to see great works making use of the theatre's rope and pulley stage systems. I'm not convinced however that there's anything to be gained from putting on Baroque period-style productions elsewhere, and on the rare occasion I've seen it attempted, I haven't been terribly impressed.

Originally created for Drottningholm by Pierre Audi, the productions of Handel's Alcina and Tamerlano have been modified to allow them to be taken to Madrid, Amsterdam and to La Monnaie in Brussels this year, but still retaining the character and purpose of the original productions. The intention is to show how revolutionary these operas are as dramatic stage works and, up to a point, they do just that. On the surface, Alcina, one of Handel's operas derived from Ariosto's Renaissance work 'Orlando Furioso', isn't really much different in form from other opera seria works of this period. There are only a few characters and little real dramatic development beyond the usual love complication ones, resulting in a great deal of anguish and emotional turmoil for all concerned. There is however in Handel a different type of dramatic structure from the types we are familiar with, and that definitely comes through in this production. Up to a point. 

The simple sets recede from the wing panels to a plain painted backdrop, creating the space and the perspective required, leaving the stage clear and fuctional. Within this, the period costumes designed by Patrick Kinmonth stand out and keep the eye drawn to the characters themselves, to the specific arrangement of people on the stage at any one time, and to the sentiments they are expressing. Audi's direction allows the emotional flow and expression of the music itself to determine the dramatic arc of the work, and when you've got Christophe Rousset directing Les Talens Lyriques in the pit, you'd be right to do just that. The rhythm, precision and with the extraordinary beauty of what Handel writes and the sound that can be derived from those period instruments is just breathtaking. When you have singers who can make something of those arrangements too, well, musically, this is as close to perfection as you can get.

And yet, it's still not enough. As beautiful as the music is, as wonderfully as it's performed and as beautiful as the stage production looks, it all becomes tiresome and visually repetitive over a three hour performance. Audi's intention is of course to prove that this is not the case, but - viewed on screen at least (admittedly not the intended or ideal way to view these productions) - it starts to drag by the middle of the second act. By that point we've obtained a good sense of where all the drama and the conflict lies. We are aware of Bradamante's mission to save Ruggiero from the spell that Alcina has cast upon him, and we are aware that Alcina's love is genuine. We also realise that, disguised as her brother Ricciardo, Bradamande has stirred up some other problems on the enchanted island, coming between Oronte and Morgana. There is however only so much back and forth switching of sentiments and partners that one can take before it all becomes terribly tedious and repetitive.

It is nontheless possible to sustain the viewers interest in other ways. As a magical opera, where the enchanted island is populated by the spirits of Alcina's former lovers who she has since abandoned and transformed into stones and trees, or at best into animals, there are opportunities to present some magical effects, or visual imagery, but that's not taken advantage of here in Pierre Audi's production. Occasionally, we see figures, ghosts with veils wrapped around their eyes, and we also have occasional interjections from Oberto, a young man with no memory of his past who is looking for his missing father, which helps bring a little variety and 'colour' to the otherwise predictable sequence of arias of love, betrayal and jealousy, but there's really not enough done to make any of this visually distinctive, much less magical.

There's nothing predictable or tedious about singing performances, or at least not in the principal roles. Maite Beaumont's Ruggiero is a little cool and not particularly distinctive, but it's sung well. You can forgive Ruggiero being a little cool as he is under a spell for most of the work, but you really need fire and depth of sentiment in Alcina and Bradamante. Sandrine Piau is a richly-voiced Alcina, variously commanding, fired up with rage, and hopelessly in love at different points. Piau is impressive on every register, reminding you that no matter what sentiment Alcina is feeling, she's always a sorceress and a woman and consequently very dangerous indeed. Angélique Noldus's Bradamante/Ricciardo is just as well characterised, her singing voice delightful and clearly well-trained for this repertoire. The ornamentation for her Act I 'È gelosia forza è d'amore' is superb, and she demonstrates great variety and colour elsewhere.

The other roles are also well-sung, and the performance of Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset is truly wondrous, but it's still not enough to sustain dramatic interest. There's not really enough depth in the drama of Alcina to give you a great deal to think about, work out or engage with. It's fairly rote opera seria material and even if Handel's treatment of it is just exquisite beyond words, it can still be long and tedious without some additional visual or mental stimulation. As a 300-year old work, far from its original historical context, it's surprising that Pierre Audi is unable or doesn't feel it necessary to use other means that would enable a modern audience to engage with its themes in a way that would not at the same time harm the beauty or the indisputable brilliance of this work.

La Monnaie's Alcina and Tamerlano can be viewed on-line for a limited period from the La Monnaie streaming service, or from the RTBF Belgian radio web-site.  Links below.  The next production from La Monnaie is Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz, available from 17 March to 6 April.

Links: La Monnaie, RTBF Musiq3