Alcina

 

Handel Alcina opera to a libretto by an unknown author. Directed 2010 by Adrian Noble at the Wiener Staatsoper.  Stars Anja Harteros (Alcina), Vesselina Kasarova (Ruggiero), Veronica Cangemi (Morgana), Kristina Hammarström (Bradamante), Alois Mühlbacher (Oberto), Benjamin Bruns (Oronte), and Adam Plachetka (Melisso). Marc Minkowski conducts Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble (Chorus Director Thomas Lang). Stage musicians are Thibault Noally (Violin), Nils Wieboldt (Cello), Florian Cousin (Flute), Gilberto Caserio (Recorder), Toshinori Ozaki (Theorbo), Francesco Corti and Johannes Maria Bogner (Harpsichord). Chorus members are Hannelore Auer, Gilles Combecave, Arina Holecek, Christian Jung, Jens Musger, Richard Neugebauer, Martina Reder, Barbara Reiter, Barbara Sommerbauer, Cornelia Sonnleithner, Ion Tibrea, and Oleg Zalytskiy. Dancers provided by the Wiener Staatsballett. Set and costumes by Anthony Ward; lighting by Jean Kalman; choreography by Sue Lefton. Directed for TV by Matthias Leutzendorff. Zoltan Glied corrected pointed out that the sound for this title was recorded using 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. This makes this the first opera recording published (we think) in state-of-the-art sound and HD video. Released  2011, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: C+

Unless you are already an expert on Handel’s music and British history, before viewing this title you must read the excellent Arthaus keepcase booklet. Otherwise, you will have a hard time understanding what you are seeing. This is a straight-forward traditional rendition of Alcina, but director Adrian Noble came up with the clever notion of presenting this as an opera inside an opera. Next below is the opening scene. This is not Alcina’s palace. It’s the drawing room of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806):

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Georgiana was, per Wikipedia, an English socialite, political organizer, style icon, author, and activist of noble birth famous (infamous?) for her charisma, political influence, beauty, unusual marital arrangement, love affairs, socializing, and gambling. You will not be surprised to learn that Georgiana was fabulously wealthy in her youth but died deeply in debt. Below is a portrait of her by Joshua Reynolds; please note the hair:

According to the Arthaus keepcase booklet, no fewer than 9 identifiable historical members of Georgiana’s circle are on the stage above together with other guests. The main event for the evening will be for the 9 to perform Handel’s Alcina as amateur music lovers. (Georgiana has hired expert musicians to play the orchestra parts and professional dancers.) This was in fact something that aristocratic people attempted to do in the days before 4K with HDR TVs.

Now let’s name the cast members (hang in there). The 3 ladies in the center of our 1st screenshot below have just received the scores for their singing parts. On your right is Anja Harteros, who will play Georgiana, who will sing Alcina. In the center is Veronica Cangemi, who will play Georgiana’s sister, Henrietta Frances, who will sing Morgana. (Does the hair look familiar?) On the left is Vesselina Kasarova, who will play Georgiana’s friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, who will sing Ruggiero:

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And next below is Alois Mühlbacher, who will play Georgiana’s son, William George Spencer Cavendish — Marquess of Hartington, who will sing Oberto. Here William gets a toy balloon as a present:

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Soon a real balloon descends! On the left in the balloon is Adam Plachetka, who plays the British politician Charles James Fox, who sings Melisso. On the right is Kristina Hammarström, who plays Georgiana’s sister-in-law, Lavinia Bingham, who sings Bradamante:

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Melisso and Bradamante climb out of the balloon, encounter Morgana, and boom, we are in the opera in the opera. To make things a bit trickier yet, Bradamante is disguised as the nobleman Ricciardo (with a sword) who is the brother of Bradamante:

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The rear wall of the drawing room opens to reveal Alcina’s illusory paradise made of monstrously tall artificial turfgrass. In the center we see on the right, Alcina and on the left, Ruggiero. The role of Ruggiero was written by Handel for a castrato. Today the part usually goes either to an alto in trousers or a countertenor. Casting Vesselina as Ruggiero results in women playing all four major roles, which seems unbalanced and makes it hard to keep from mixing up Ruggiero and Bradamante. And as you can see below, the hero Ruggiero turns out in our cast to be the shortest adult figure on the stage. Note below well-dressed men standing and looking at the canopy of happiness. These are Georgiana’s guests who didn’t draw singing roles in the opera within the opera. They play the the role of spectators to the end of the opera within the opera:

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The show continues with a typical insanely complicated Baroque opera plot based on numerous improbable intrigues, misunderstandings, and rapid changes in positions and moods. All this is cheerfully offered by Handel and accepted by the audience so as to give the composer the maximum number of arias in which he can treat every variation of love that literature ever dreamed of. Sets, costumes, lighting, dramatic concepts, personal directing, and acting all take a back seat to the avalanche of recitatives and arias. If you don’t like the one you hear now, fear not, another is soon coming!

Note also the stage musicians. They represent the small forces that Georgiana was able to round up for her party, and their playing turns out to be quite charming.

Now that we have described the opera within the opera, how do we describe the main opera? Well, take all of the above and add a full period-instrument Baroque orchestra in the pit. This is the fine Les Musiciens du Louvre — Grenoble, whose playing is magnificent. Only the audience in the theater can hear the pit orchestra. Finally there is also a home theater audience watching (1) the opera within the opera and (2) the opera. We at home are a super-audience — only we get to see the big brilliant subtitles in six languages including Italian. Whew!

All the music was well recorded with 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling and fine miking and mixing.

We turn now to the next screenshot below with Alcina (more Georgiana hair) and Ruggiero making love while Bradamante (the blue figure) tries not to throw up. For the rest of this review, we will focus mostly on the video file. We think TV Director Matthias Leutzendorff had limited experience in live stage work, got called in at the last minute because he was in town, and then got ambushed. He didn’t know or have time to explain to the lighting director that the intense white spotlights on the lovers would not work with a blue spot on another part of the stage. On our computer screen, the lovers don’t look too bad. On our 65” LG 4K OLED the lovers appear almost totally burned out from over-exposure (while Bradamante’s face continues to look like a blue blob). This file was made in 2010, early in the era of HD cameras. It could be that the older your TV, the better this scene will look:

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And in the image next below we get the cardboard-cut-out-standing-on-the-stage effect with weak resolution and poor adjustment to differences in light at different ranges:

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In images like the next one below, we see numerous video artifacts and shimmering on our 4K TV. Note the pasty look on the faces of the men in the shadows. Once again, the computer screen looks better— a lot better — than the big TV:

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Video resolution on Oberto’s face below is noticeably bad in the home theater:

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Well, we interrupt our comments on video clarity to show how the spectators at Georgiana’s party (opera within the opera) are a bit bored and can’t resist getting into the act:

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The spectators do a silly dance. (All the choreography in this show is pretty lame — maybe that’s what the stage director wanted):

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We call the next 3 shots below “Kind of Blue”:

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Enough! We are at the end, the magic urn has been smashed, and the damned souls return to life. The faces of the main protagonists are all in shadows — this lighting might be OK for a student production, but it’s not OK at the Vienna State Opera:

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And finally the Happy End — except Alcina seems to want her urn back:

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Print critics, who usually like traditional productions best, seemed to approve this disc. In 2011 most of them were just getting DVD players to watch on old SD TVs — few of them could afford Blu-ray players and HD TVs. An exception was David Shengold, who reviewed this in Opera News (January 2012, at page 62). He states that "Kasarova offers an incomprehensibly busy and vocally wayward performance that pushes the limits of self-parody" and that "Blu-ray reveals everything in amazing clarity---including Kasarova's  . . . distressing facial contortions." Richard Lawrence, writing in Gramophone (December 2011, at page 99) also slams poor Kasarova.

Here are our conclusions formed in early 2019: The instrumentalists are terrific and the singers good enough (especially Harteros) for the average opera fan to enjoy all that Handel offers musically. The sound recording is fine, and the title should get a “+” for the 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. The keepcase booklet is excellent. From there on it’s downhill. The cast is weakened by using a short woman as Ruggiero. The opera within the opera is clever and appropriate for seasoned opera experts, but it is too complicated and prissy for everybody else. Energy that could have been directed toward the psychological aspects of the story is dissipated on intricate mechanics. The lighting is a complete disaster for the live audience and the HT. The choreography would have been improved by giving the ballet dancers a vacation with pay. The English subtitles are pretty good when they appear, but too often they do not. This was put together early in the era of HDVD, and it now shows it’s age. We give this a C, which we boost to C+ thanks to the 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling, but only for those with the sitzfleisch needed to hack it.

We see lots of YT clips of this, all in distressing SD.