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A Virtue of Necessity

ROBERT HUGILL was at
English Touring Opera's 'Alcina'

 

When Handel wrote Alcina he was able to take advantage of both a small chorus and a group of dancers, so that the opera includes both choral numbers and a significant amount of dance. So it was particularly brave of English Touring Opera to perform it as part of their HandelFest (seen Friday 23 October 2009 at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London UK). James Conway's original production was seen in 2005 and this revival was directed by Bernadette Iglich. The production was inventive in the way some of the choral and dance elements were retained, but transferred to the soloists.

Celeste Lazarenko as Morgana, Nathan Vale as Oronte and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Celeste Lazarenko as Morgana, Nathan Vale as Oronte and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

Joanna Parker's set evoked Alcina's island at the front of the stage, but at the back a plain backdrop and row of chairs was designed to convey the meeting house from whence Melisso (Neil Baker) and Bradamente (Carolyn Dobbin) travel. Conway, in his article in the programme book, refers to depicting on stage the two opposing forces struggling for Ruggiero (Wendy Dawn Thompson). But we were very much left to evoke Alcina's magic for ourselves: her island was depicted with just a swathe of curtain, a virginals full of water and a distressed chandelier lying abandoned on the floor. Only in the seventeenth century costumes was real gorgeousness evoked. Part of this, of course, is necessity as this production has to travel to a variety of locations and ETO works on a shoe-string.

Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

The magic in Alcina can be evoked purely by the singers and so much is dependent on the singer of the title role. Natasha Jouhl had all the notes and her aria at the end of Act 2, when she realises that she has lost Ruggiero, was profoundly moving. But somehow she never made me care for her, never managed to fascinate and make us see things from Ruggiero's enchanted point of view. I think that from her first entry, Jouhl was a little to earnest, a little too keen to make us feel that Alcina was suffering the pangs of love. In fact I found her portrayal a little too glum, too fatally lacking in charm. This was a real shame, because as a Handelian, Jouhl had a lot to offer and gave highly musical accounts of her arias.

It did not help that Celeste Lazarenko, as Alcina's sister Morgana, sparkled and charmed effortlessly. Of course Morgana gets the brilliant show piece aria at the end of Act 1, which Lazarenko sang with due brilliance. But she also conveyed Morgana's more poignant side as her relationship with Oronte (Nathan Vale) hits problems. Lazarenko's Morgana was a perfect flirt, and you loved her.

Nathan Vale as Oronte and Celeste Lazarenko as Morgana in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Nathan Vale as Oronte and Celeste Lazarenko as Morgana in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

Nathan Vale's voice has darkened and filled out since I first heard him singing for the London Handel Festival. But he remains a fine singer of Handel's music and he brought an easy facility to Oronte's music.

Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero, the man loved by both Alcina and Bradamente, was the most problematic member of the cast. She took some time to warm up and she sounded as if she was having problems with the upper part of her voice. But even when warmed up in Act 3, she was rather underpowered. Her account of Ruggiero's show-piece aria at the end of the opera was frankly disappointing; a singer must pull out all the stops here if they are not going to be overshadowed by Handel's stunning horn parts. And on this occasion, Thompson was well and truly overshadowed. She was convincingly androgynous in the part, but failed to bring to the music any sense of what Alcina or Bradamente might see in Ruggiero.

Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

Carolyn Dobbin's Bradamente, on the other hand, was very much the opposite: a truly rich and vibrant character. I had been impressed with Dobbin's account of Teodata in Flavio last week, and Dobbin continued to impress here as well. The part requires vocal flexibility in what is quite a low lying part, and Dobbin sang as though the part fitted her voice admirably. She very much gave the impression that it was Bradamente who was going to wear the trousers when she got Ruggiero home.

Neil Baker was suitable upright and virtuous in the relatively small, but important part of Melisso, Bradamente's tutor.

Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Neil Baker in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Neil Baker in English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

The orchestra under Robert Howarth brought Handel's music to life. Howarth made a virtue of necessity and used the small band of period instruments to give a crisp and incisive feel to the score.

The opera was sung in English and all the cast's diction was admirable, so that we could follow the plot with no effort at all.

Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith
Wendy Dawn Thompson as Ruggiero and Natasha Jouhl in the title role of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's 'Alcina'. Photo © 2009 Richard Hubert Smith

This was a brave effort, with some lovely individual moments. But Iglich and Conway never really quite convinced me that their production worked as real drama; it didn't grip me the way the productions of Flavio and Tolomeo did when I saw ETO perform them last week. Fatally, they never really brought to life the magic of Alcina's island. But this has to be seen in the context of a tour where the company is performing five Handel operas, and one near miss out of five is no bad thing.

Copyright © 27 October 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK

-------

GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL

ALCINA

ENGLISH TOURING OPERA

JAMES CONWAY

NATHAN VALE

BRITTEN THEATRE

ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC

LONDON HANDEL FESTIVAL

LONDON

UNITED KINGDOM

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