AlcinaGeorg Friedrich Handel - Alcina

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna 2011 | Adrian Noble, Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Anja Harteros, Vesselina Kasarova, Veronica Cangemi, Kristina Hammarström, Alois Mühlbacher, Benjamin Bruns, Adam Plachetka | Arthaus

If it doesn’t do the mostly static and uneventful nature of Handel’s 1735 opera any favours, it’s at least appropriate that director Adrian Noble chooses to stage this production for the Weiner Staatsoper entirely within the ballroom of a stately house. Alcina does indeed feel small and intimate – some might say dry and mechanical – the kind of entertainment put on for the amusement of a gathering of nobles at an 18th century dinner party. That’s not exactly high-concept, but it’s about as adventurous as you’re going to get for a rare performance of a Baroque opera at the Vienna Staatsoper (the first in 50 years), and if it doesn’t do much for the opening up of Alcina, it at least recognises its limitations and, under the baton of the excellent Marc Minkowski, it’s about as good an account of the opera as you could expect.

The play within a play concept is only really nominally adhered to, the overture used to set the occasion within Devonshire House, where Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and some guests (you would only know this from the production notes) put on a performance that perhaps appeals to or reflects their nature. The Duchess becomes the sorceress Alcina, who enchants men and then casts them off, changing them into wild beasts, trees or ghosts, left to roam her island. Her latest conquest is Ruggiero, who is unaware of his fate, but when his betrothed Bradamante (disguised as a man, Ricciardo) and Melisso, her tutor, come to rescue him, Alcina recognises that she may indeed have real feelings for him. There’s not a whole lot more to the opera than this. There are a few additional complications added with Alcina’s sister Morgana falling in love with Ricciardo (not realising he is actually Bradamante), which enrages Oronte, Alcina’s general who is in love with her. There’s another figure, Oberto, taken in after he and his father were shipwrecked on the island (his father since turned into a wild beast). And just in case that’s all not confusing enough, there are the usual identity problems with trouser roles to come to terms with. Not only is the young boy Oberto played by a female, but Ruggiero is a woman playing a male role who is betrothed to a woman dressed as a man.

AlcinaT

That’s complicated enough to get your head around without having to consider that Adrian Noble’s production has historical figures playing these roles, but it’s not as complex as it sounds. The dramatic action is limited and the emotional content isn’t that deep, the endless da capo arias expressing no profound wisdom or inner turmoil and no noble sentiments beyond simple expressions of love, rejection and love again, repetitively back and forth as awareness of identities and natures are revealed. Essentially, it’s a case of the power of true love prevailing. Handel’s Italian operas can be rather dramatically limited in this respect – certainly when compared to his oratorios – and Alcina seems relatively straightforward in its playing out of the situation, with arrangements that aren’t particular complex. Mood and character however are tastefully evoked throughout, but there are indeed also some beautiful heart-rending arias and melodies by the time the characters reach the crux of their situation at the end of Act II and in Act III.

If the staging is slightly static in an opera where nothing much happens – a fact only emphasised by non-participant guests sitting around watching the performance – Adrian Noble at least makes it all look very lovely indeed, with striking lighting, colours and simple effects that are appropriate to the occasion but highly effective. The tone is matched by Minkowski’s conducting of the Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, finding the rhythmic centre of the score, the whole ensemble bright, vivid and dynamic, but with a delicate touch to individual instruments which are picked out beautifully in the sound mix. The single greatest thing about the choice of staging however is indeed the use of a small core of musicians on the stage creating a wonderful connection in their accompaniment of the singers.

The most notable singing here is from Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero, demonstrating a remarkable range from deep notes to high coloratura seemingly effortlessly. Her delivery and acting can be slightly mannered and even distracting, perhaps on account of playing a male role, but I don’t think the Vienna audience give her the credit she deserves here. Kristina Hammarströmn is a good Bradamante and Anja Harteros fine as Alcina, if a little lacking in character. There are a few off-notes here and there, but her Act II aria “Ah! Mio cor! Schernito sei!” is one of several beautiful Handel compositions here and sung very well. As Oberto, Alois Mühlbacher thankfully adds some variety to the voices and the repetitive romantic declarations and expressions of disappointment in rejection.Drawn out to three and a half-hours, those sentiments can become rather tedious after a while, but while Alcina isn’t the greatest Handel opera and is fairly static and limited in its dramatic situation, its overall construction is carefully considered and it’s worth persevering with for the some wonderful moments and beautiful arrangements that arise out of it as a whole. The staging and performances from the orchestra and the singers all ensure that those qualities come through.

As do the specifications of the Blu-ray from Arthaus. The sumptuous staging is finely detailed and extraordinarily colourful and, other than the use of fades and one lapse of rapid cross-cutting, the filming is fine. The PCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio mixes are impressive. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. A twenty-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is included.