Handel’s opera Alcina received its first performance in 1735 at the new theater of Covent Garden, London. It was one of the composer’s last triumphant Italian operas before he turned his attention to oratorios. Now three-year-old Boston Opera Collaborative joins Boston’s embrace of this opera with a new production at the Tower Theater, Massachusetts College of Art, through February 15.
The story of Alcina, after Orlando Furioso, is one of those preposterous Baroque plots difficult to summarize or even to remember. Furthermore, it is a magical tale in which the enchantress Alcina, ruling over her island, transforms people to suit her fancy. Complicating things still further, the countertenor role of the heroic Ruggiero is often assigned, as here, to a woman. Despite this production’s lively stage direction by Andrew Ryker, the best thing to do is to forget the plot and sit back and enjoy the glorious music.
This is a treble-voice show, clothed here in 1920s garb. Soprano Leah Hungerford, who sang an imperious Queen Alcina, looked at times like a vamp. Her sister Morgana, sung by soprano Emily Burr, played the part of a pixie in Act I and became a flapper as the opera progressed. Mezzo-soprano Kristina Riegle sang a regal knight betrothed to alto Brooke Larimer’s Bradamante disguised as a man. All were excellent. Among the many fine arias, I would single out Alcina’s anguished lament “Ah! mio cor” in Act II and Bradamante’s revenge aria in the same act, as well as Ruggiero’s angry aria in Act III “Sta nell’ircana.” Kathryn McKellar, Christopher Aaron Smith, and Adrian Packel filled lesser roles. Each act ended with a touch of Yo-el Cassell’s effective choreography for five dancers.
Conducting from the harpsichord, Music Director Paul Cienniwa’s music pacing throughout was expert. Directing a reduced orchestra of period instruments, he explained in a program essay that means restrictions eliminated the double reeds, horns, flutes and piccolo. Violins replaced the aria with two flutes obbligato, while the band more than compensated in energy for the two horns not heard in Ruggiero’s Act III tour de force. But we did have Audrey Cienniwa on cello, whose solo in Morgana’s Act III aria produced an exquisite effect.
All ends happily at the conclusion of Act III when the soloists join the chorus and dancers and sing “every ill is changed to joy, and at the end love triumphs.” Hats off to Boston Opera Collaborative for providing us with such an entertaining diversion in this Handel year.