'Alcina' a tour de forceful feminist power
By ADAM BAER
FOR THE STAR-LEDGER - NEW YORK, 9/12/03
Opera has its strong feminist models, to be sure: Think Strauss' Salome, Bizet's Carmen and Mozart's Queen of the Night.
But if we are to trust Francesca Zambello, the stylish director of the New York City Opera's premiere production of the season, it's Handel's Alcina - a power-wielding sorceress who enslaves men - who deserves the award for Most Evolved Feminine evildoer.
Zambello, famous for last year's hit Met production of Berlioz's "Les Troyens," has given her "Alcina" empowered positivism. The matriarch marvel, sung Thursday night by the Rubenesque soprano Christine Goerke, a strong-willed singer with a golden tone and immense command, enjoys regular worship from Ruggiero, a knight seduced by her wiles and hence kept from his love, Bradamante.
In this production, Ruggiero lives on his knees in front of Alcina, who wears a shimmering
midnight blue dress, held up, as it were, by a steely cage-bustier. The first act opens with a woman embracing a man, her hands on his behind. And throughout the story, which details Bradamante's efforts to win Ruggiero back (she dresses male and travels with a buddy, Melisso), women seduce disguised women, as in Shakespeare.
The libretto comes from Ludovico Arioisto's "Orlando furioso," a widely read narrative poem from the Italian High Renaissance, which would have been familiar to the Covent Garden audience of 1732, who witnessed the opera's premiere. The work was written
for the opening of that house's new theater, and like Handel, Zambello is happy to make it a palatable, successful entertainment. (She condenses the three-act piece into two acts and omits a child character, Oberto, who, in the original version, has lost his father.)
Significant, too, is that despite the work's intrinsic dramatic limitations - 18th-century
operas can drag because their songs (or "da capo arias") focus on a moment in time and also because the action occurs in formal "recitative" moments when words are spoken-sung over accompaniment - Zambello's production breezes by for its use of dancers, physical symbolism and lively props.
Khaki-clad tree-people - male modern dancers with dead branches for hands who hop about effeminately, shaking their leafy legs - represent Alcina's male conquests. And Neil Patel's sets, framed by a broken brick wall, include bold touches: Alcina sits on a silver couch under a rectangular glass arch that encloses Roman columns; the home of Oronte, Alcina's servant, and his difficult lover, Morgana, is a small glass shed spotted, Ikea- like, with green leaves; and the tree-people spend their days in a multi-tiered prison that allows the bleakness of the barren forest behind it to seep through.
The singing is fairly strong, too: Mezzo Jennifer Dudley's Bradamante has an aptly spirited voice. Mezzo Katharine Goeldner's Ruggiero offers a boyish air. (One expansively sung hit of the night was his good-bye song "Verdi prati.") Bass-baritone Joshua Wingrade's Melisso is possessed of a dark-toned insight. Soprano Lauren Skuce's Morgana offers a seductive surprise: Her teasing "Tornami a vagghegiar" stopped time. And the City Opera orchestra under Daniel Beckwith sounds fairly tight: He adds the strum of a Baroque theorbo, and thanks to a few gambas and period string instruments, the gestures come off swift, light and full of air.
Zambello's production is most notable, however, for its original conclusion. Even though Alcina loses her battle in the end, she doesn't scoff. Like the freed tree-people, who now appear shirtless and leafless, she's born anew: stripped down to a plain brown frock and open to the future. She is a paean to both the male and female spirit of today. She wil adapt.