Music: George Frideric Handel; libretto adapted from an earlier libretto by Antonio Fanzaglia
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall

Randall Scotting (Ruggiero) and Vanessa Goikoetxea (Alcina) in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Philip Newton
Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Melissa) and Ginger Costa-Jackson (Bradamante) in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Philip Newton
Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Melissa), Vanessa Goikoetxea (Alcina), and John Marzano (Oronte), and Ginger Costa-Jackson (Bradamante) in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Philip Newton
Ginger Costa-Jackson (Bradamante), with Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Melissa) in the background, in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Sunny Martini
Sharleen Joynt (Morgana) and John Marzano (Oronte) in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Sunny Martini
Sharleen Joynt (Morgana) in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Philip Newton
Christine Brandes leads members of the Seattle Symphony in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Sunny Martini
Members of the Seattle Symphony in "Alcina" at Seattle Opera Credit: Sunny Martini

One of the loveliest productions of a Handel opera I have seen in a long time, the Seattle Opera’s new Alcina is more than worth the time to travel and see it.

It’s surprising in its small scale: this version comprises in its entirety six singers all in principal roles, no chorus, and a smaller Baroque orchestra. Like any Handel work (one of the most prolific and speedy composers in musical history), a number of different versions exist at different times and different places: one version of Alcina had one more cast member, a boy who serves largely (as far as I can see from various summaries I’ve read) to serve as exposition: who is Alcina? Originally the Circe of Greek myth, who turned men into pigs in Homer, she now takes a series of lovers—when she tires of them (usually sooner rather than later), she turns them into various animals and plants, even stones. It’s a kind of magical house cleaning.

The plot, as many audience members around us observed, is so full of fake identities, lost items and just plain changes of mind that it was just about impossible to decipher in print. As Joshua D Gailey noted in the programme, “on Alcina’s magic island, nothing is certain…” Indeed not!

In director Tim Albery’s fine direction, everything became as clear as a complicated Baroque libretto can be. We knew (mostly) what the various cast members wanted at various stages in the plot, with a couple of surprises thrown in, just for fun.

Christine Brandes’s conducting was perfection. She created a space in which singers and instrumentalists alike found a place to work their particular magic. The singers have a wide range of vocal timbres and ranges, including three sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, one tenor, one counter-tenor (male alto) and, rather surprisingly, no baritone or bass roles. The notes indicate that, to balance this, Albery and Brandes between them have beefed up the lower registers of the orchestra, especially as one role, Melissa, (sung by mezzo Nina Yoshida Nielsen) was once played as a bass, Melisso, the tutor figure. All the singers were excellent, all, with both great voices and great acting skills. Silly as the libretto might have been in summary, these people were all fighting for what mattered to them: love, including its many rejections.

Alcina (Vanessa Goikoetxea) was the villain of the piece—you just don’t go about turning your ex-boyfriends into animals, plants and objects because you’re bored (I hope) but, again, she just wants a relationship. We feel her pain throughout, and as she loses her magic in the end, but so do we feel for all the cast. Randall Scotting sang Ruggiero; his male alto was a big (by Handelian standards) voice that was very rich and full even in the counter-tenor range.

The voices matched and blended together in a musical whole. Many parts of the opera, I found myself not so much worried about what was happening on stage, but transfixed by the score itself. One definition of the sublime reads, “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe” (Oxford Languages). I would say rather that Handel at his best becomes a mystical experience, one that goes far beyond just what is happening on stage (that, too), but one in which I found myself so caught up in the music that I followed the drama without needing to reference the subtitles.

Morgana (sung by Sharleen Joynt), Oronte (John Marzano) and Ginger Costa-Jackson (Bradamante, a female part sung as a pants role) were all were uniformly excellent.

Hannah Clark’s contemporary scenic and costume designs and Ian William Galloway’s video design made the world of the opera a very real / imaginary place. The projections had a real depth as the action became more complicated and as audience and cast alike wandered deeper and deeper into danger and a magic increasingly out of control. They appeared to be made of still images that were layered and moved forward, increasing in size and going out of focus, in order to create a real depth, an almost 3D effect.

Like the stories in other medieval and classical sources, we go, lost in the depths of the forest and then, when the resolution of the drama occurs, the projections show a reversed progress, a regress that takes us out of the depths of enchantment and onto the sea, which represents freedom and (as in many works that are set in wilderness), back to a safer civilization that may be less wonderous but happier, at least for most of us.

I am very pleased to have been present as Seattle Opera made this particular journey with us.

Reviewer: Keith Dorwick

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