Opera Atelier’s Canadian Premiere of Handel’s Alcina meets every expectation that we have of the company – it is sexy, smart, visually delightful, and with the precisely voluptuous sound that we expect from a period production of opera seria. But there was something missing in tonight’s production. Perhaps the fault lies in the colorless libretto of the opera which Artistic Director, Marshall Pynkoski, rightly feels ambivalent about. This ambivalence seemed to transfer itself into the overall aesthetic of the production which, at some points during tonight’s performance, came across as trying too hard.
What does one do in the absence of a poetics that would convey the complexities of Alcina’s story? The libretto is so wooden that the audience is almost tempted to forget the surtitles entirely and just listen, just watch. The story is choppy, and its peaks and resolutions often appear forced. Pynkoski and his artistic team attempt to resolve many of these issues by eliminating what might seem superfluous (the entire subplot of Oberto and Asotlfo is left out of this performance), and by foregrounding context, by weaving it, quite literally, into the fabric of the production.
Alcina is an enchantress who has transformed a desert island into an enchanted kingdom of green meadows, streams, and rich palaces all constructed out of the enchanted souls of her lovers; she is that somewhat psychopathic femme fatale who consumes her victims in body and spirit, and then lives blithely off their remains. This information, so key to the entire story, does not really appear until well into the First Act. In order to bring this back story to life from the very beginning, Pynkoski ushers in a new era of magic into Opera Atelier’s performances by incorporating film into set and production design. Film director Ben Shirinian employs projections of male bodies that occasionally appear, bound and writhing, within the enchanted geographies of Alcina’s domain. The effect is startling, and brings a personified coherence to the story which weaves together the themes of desire, consumption, illusion and revelation.
In the attempt to foreground the nature of constructedness in Alcina however, the production often makes choices that are not immediately coherent to the audience. The opera opened to a frontal scrim painted to invoke a desert. On this, the body of a man curled taught within ensnaring dunes appeared, thus reminding us of Alcina’s illusions. However, when the scrim lifts, we see a bare stage with barres and bricks exposed, dancers in leotards warming up as a single corps de ballet figure dances elegantly to the overture. One struggles to see the significance of this moment – what does Alcina’s magical island have to do with the members of tonight’s production preparing for performance? The idea of a reveal is interesting, but only when it does, in fact, reveal something.
What was truly magical about tonight’s performance was, quite simply, the stunning performances delivered by all members of the cast. In the title role, Meghan Lindsay’s Alcina was luminous and inspiring, bringing a rare warmth to a character who is often sung with chillingly formalist precision. Mireille Asselin returns to the stage after her astounding success as Andromède in Persèe to give us a Morgana who is funny, sexy, devilishly charming, all with an incomparable lyrical and dramatic range, and a sense of musicality that is breathtaking. As Ruggiero, Allyson McHardy was somewhat muted in the beginning but quickly came into her own, closing the first half with a performance of “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” that left the audience spellbound. Krešimir Špicer’s Oronte was refreshingly vigorous, bringing a drive to the music that never overstepped form, but in delivery, enhanced it. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, under the able baton of David Fallis, brought out the crisp elegance of the orchestral score while imbuing the overall effect with a subtle drama that perfectly complemented that outstanding performances onstage.
Handel’s Alcina is all about looking beyond the illusion, and if I do find some fault here in a few of the production choices it is only because Opera Atelier has so consistently treated its audiences to magnificent productions, that we expect only the very best of the best from them. I think tonight’s performance strives towards an ultima Thule, I have no doubt it will eventually arrive there.
Photo Credit Bruce Zinger