En­chanted isle Al­cina

Mu­sic by Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del. Li­bretto by an anony­mous writer based by Lu­dovico Ariosto’s “Or­lando fu­rioso.” Pre­miere: April 16, 1735, Theatre Royal, Covent Gar­den, Lon­don. Sung in Ital­ian.

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

at Santa Fe Opera

The writ­ings of Lu­dovico Ariosto have prob­a­bly not come un­der scru­tiny at your book club, but if your read­ing cir­cle had been meet­ing in the 16th cen­tury in­stead, you would have been hang­ing on his ev­ery word. A gov­ern­ment em­ployee at the court of Fer­rara in the first few decades of that cen­tury, he found time to pen a hand­ful of plays and then, mo­men­tously, an epic poem ti­tled Or­lando fu­rioso, which he pub­lished in 1516 and then brought out in re­vised edi­tions through 1532, the year be­fore his death. It is a long vol­ume; its 46 can­tos, all writ­ten in the po­etic scheme known as ot­tava rima, add up to 38,736 lines. It fol­lows the imag­ined ex­ploits of Or­lando, nephew of Charle­magne, who ex­pe­ri­ences (or en­coun­ters) many ad­ven­tures of love, war, and der­ring-do at a time when the Sara­cen army has in­vaded Europe in an ef­fort to over­throw Chris­tian rule.

Its episodes are rich in fan­tasy. Here we meet such crea­tures as the hip­pogriff, half-ea­gle and half-horse, use­ful for fly­ing to Ethiopia. We hitch a ride to the moon in Eli­jah’s char­iot to re­trieve a nec­es­sary medic­i­nal po­tion. We tramp through the out­doors, brav­ing wild beasts and mag­i­cal spells, the two things most threat­en­ing to a French crusader apart from Sara­cen war­riors and re­luc­tant lady loves. The book’s histri­onic stance and emo­tional breadth proved ir­re­sistible to the­ater peo­ple. Madri­gal com­posers of the late Re­nais­sance set its stan­zas to mu­sic, and once opera came into be­ing at the dawn of the 17th cen­tury, com­posers and their li­bret­tists ea­gerly pil­laged Or­lando

fu­rioso. In 1619, Marco da Gagliano and Ja­copo Peri pro­duced what seems to be the ear­li­est Or­lan­do­derived

opera, Lo spos­al­izio di Me­doro et An­gel­ica (The Wed­ding of Me­doro and An­gel­ica). In 1623, Francesca Cac­cini re­leased in Florence La lib­er­azione di Rug­giero dall’isola d’Al­cina (The Lib­er­a­tion of Rug­giero From the Is­land of Al­cina), fo­cus­ing on an episode in which the sor­cer­ess Al­cina has im­pris­oned the pal­adin knight Rug­giero in her mag­i­cal realm, weav­ing spells to make him love her and for­sake his fi­ancée Bradamante. It went down in his­tory as the first opera ever com­posed by a woman.

That episode of Ariosto’s was de­vel­oped through at least two dozen operas dur­ing the next two cen­turies, with treat­ments com­ing from such well-known com­posers as Luigi Rossi (in Rome, 1642), An­dré

Cam­pra (Paris, 1705), To­maso Al­bi­noni (Venice, 1725), Jo­hann Adolph Hasse (Mi­lan, 1771), and Maria There­sia von Par­adis (Prague, 1797). But the most fa­mous of all operas founded on this tale is Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del’s Al­cina, pre­miered in Lon­don in 1735.

The fifty-year-old Han­del was at the height of his ca­reer in terms of artistry. Af­ter grow­ing up in Ger­many and spend­ing some ap­pren­tice years in Rome, he ad­vanced his in­ter­na­tional oper­atic as­pi­ra­tions by vis­it­ing Eng­land in 1711 to over­see the pro­duc­tion of his opera Ri­naldo. Three years later, he es­tab­lished him­self in Lon­don full time — con­ve­niently just when his pa­tron Ge­org Lud­wig, elec­tor of Hanover (and a fel­low Ger­man) as­cended to the Bri­tish throne as Ge­orge I. He wrote 24 operas on Ital­ian texts for var­i­ous com­pa­nies in Lon­don; and, mostly af­ter 1740, he com­posed about as many or­a­to­rios, which, al­though they were un­staged, shared much of the mu­si­cal vo­cab­u­lary used in his operas.

Han­del ex­pe­ri­enced vi­cis­si­tudes as a com­poser and pro­ducer of opera. A cri­sis ar­rived in 1734. His lease lapsed at the King’s Theatre in the Hay­mar­ket, where his opera com­pany had been based. The the­ater was given over to a dif­fer­ent group, the Opera of the No­bil­ity, founded the pre­vi­ous year un­der the ex­alted pa­tron­age of the Prince of Wales. The new com­pany con­tracted for the Lon­don de­but, and on­go­ing ex­clu­sive ser­vices, of Carlo Broschi, a.k.a. Farinelli, the su­per­star among cas­trato singers. It was se­ri­ous com­pe­ti­tion, but Han­del saw an op­por­tu­nity that would al­low his own com­pany to not just sur­vive but even flour­ish.

He came to an ar­range­ment with the ac­tor and im­pre­sario John Rich, who in 1732 had opened a the­ater in Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den. This was the first of sev­eral built on that site, where the Royal Opera House now stands. Most evenings, the the­ater per­formed Rich’s pro­duc­tions, which were mostly stage plays. (Its open­ing of­fer­ing, at the end of 1732, was Con­greve’s play The Way of the World.) Two nights of the week would be given over to Han­del’s en­ter­prises. There was con­sid­er­able irony in this ar­range­ment, whereby Rich en­abled what would prove to be the last stand of Han­delian opera. It was Rich who, in 1728, had de­liv­ered a fa­tal blow to the genre when he col­lab­o­rated with com­poser John Gay to pro­duce the wildly pop­u­lar low­brow work The

Beg­gar’s Opera, a bal­lad opera, or (you might say) an anti-opera. The wits of the cof­fee houses could not re­sist ob­serv­ing that the piece had made “Gay rich and Rich gay.”

Still, as a savvy busi­ness­man, he was still will­ing to take a chance on Ital­ian-lan­guage opera if Han­del was the com­poser, and Han­del saw an op­por­tu­nity in the co-pro­duc­tion ven­ture. Rich’s the­ater was a state-of-the-art fa­cil­ity, ca­pa­ble of pur­vey­ing stag­ing ef­fects that were beyond the ca­pac­ity of the King’s Theatre. More than any other the­ater in Lon­don, it could make magic hap­pen, and Han­del de­cided to cap­i­tal­ize on pre­cisely that. For his 1734-1735 sea­son, he gave re­vivals of two of his ex­ist­ing operas (Il pas­tor fido and Ari­anna), and cre­ated a pas­tiche piece (ti­tled Oreste) ar­ranged from var­i­ous of his scores. More sig­nif­i­cantly, he un­leashed two brand­new, spec­ta­cle-in­fused operas, both based on pop­u­lar sto­ries from Or­lando fu­rioso: Ari­o­dante (which opened on Jan. 8, 1735) and Al­cina (which fol­lowed on April 16). Be­tween the two fell the pe­riod of Lent, dur­ing which operas were not al­lowed to be staged. Han­del filled that time by pro­duc­ing two of his ear­lier

What de­lights mod­ern play­go­ers in some of Shake­speare’s most beloved plays is likely to also de­light them in Al­cina.

or­a­to­rios (Es­ther and Deb­o­rah) and un­veil­ing a new one, Athalia. He grabbed fur­ther at­ten­tion by per­son­ally per­form­ing his newly writ­ten or­gan con­cer­tos as in­ter­mis­sion en­ter­tain­ments be­tween acts of the or­a­to­rios.

Al­cina scored a tri­umph, al­though one as­pect of it back­fired. Han­del em­pha­sized its some­what di­ver­tisse­ment-like fla­vor by in­clud­ing ex­tended bal­let seg­ments. To per­form those, he and Rich hired the Parisian dance troupe of Marie Sallé, who was gen­er­ally pop­u­lar (if to some de­gree con­tro­ver­sial) with Lon­don au­di­ences. It is un­clear what ac­tu­ally hap­pened, al­though one senses a claque do­ing its tar­geted work. In any case, Sallé bombed. In June 1735, the crit­i­cal jour­nal Le Pour et Con­tre ex­plained of her ap­pear­ance in Al­cina: “She cast her­self for the role of Cu­pid and took upon her­self to dance it in male at­tire. This, it is said, suits her very ill and was ap­par­ently the cause of her dis­grace.” When the sea­son ended, she and her dancers re­treated to Paris, where she would re­main hon­ored as a foun­da­tional fig­ure of the French bal­let tra­di­tion.

Han­del had hoped Sallé’s star power might counter the fame Farinelli wielded over at the Opera of the No­bil­ity. As it hap­pens, he used for Al­cina a li­bretto adapted from the 1728 opera L’isola d’Al­cina (Al­cina’s Is­land) by Ric­cardo Broschi, who was Farinelli’s brother. Opera in Eng­land was filled with in­ternecine con­nec­tions. Ex­cept­ing the dance se­quences, Al­cina achieved a re­sound­ing suc­cess. The king and queen com­manded 18 per­for­mances be­fore it closed on July 2 — a very healthy run. Han­del con­tin­ued for two fur­ther sea­sons at Rich’s the­ater, but none of his post

Al­cina operas would do as well. Af­ter that, he fun­neled his ef­forts in the dra­matic gen­res to­ward or­a­to­rios, which as­suredly in­volved a lower de­gree of stress.

Mrs. Mary Pen­darves De­lany (Han­del’s friend and an ar­dent cor­re­spon­dent) wrote an en­thu­si­as­tic re­port to her mother be­fore the piece opened: “Yes­ter­day morn­ing my sis­ter and I went to Mr. Han­del’s house to hear the first re­hearsal of the new opera

Al­cina. I think it is the best he ever made, but I have thought so of so many, that I will not say pos­i­tively ’tis the finest, but ’tis so fine I have not the words to de­scribe it . ... Whilst Mr. Han­del was play­ing his part, I could not help think­ing him a necro­mancer in the midst of his own en­chant­ments.”

Al­cina does in­deed have very spe­cial charms. Al­though we might not want to get too chummy with an en­chantress who deals with peo­ple en­croach­ing on her is­land by turn­ing them into an­i­mals or such inan­i­mate land­scape fea­tures as rocks, trees, and streams, Al­cina is at least a sor­cer­ess who sin­cerely de­sires to love and be loved. Here, the cen­tral drama in­volves her ro­man­tic pur­suit of Rug­giero, who is be­trothed to Bradamante. Bradamante — amaz­ing co­in­ci­dence — also stum­bles across the is­land; and be­cause this is 18th-cen­tury opera, Bradamante has dis­guised her­self as her own brother, Ric­cia­rdo. In a state of en­chant­ment, Rug­giero has no mem­ory of his fi­ancée, but his old tu­tor, Melisso, helps him see re­al­ity through the use of a magic ring. A sec­ondary plot has Al­cina’s sis­ter, Mor­gana, fall­ing in love with “Ric­cia­rdo” (who is re­ally Bradamante); an­other has Al­cina’s gen­eral, Oronte, fall­ing in love with Mor­gana; and an­other has a young fel­low, Oberto, search­ing for his father, whom Al­cina has turned into a lion. Rug­giero’s stead­fast love for Bradamante wins out in the end. He shat­ters the urn that con­tains the key to Al­cina’s power, in con­se­quence of which Al­cina and Mor­gana evap­o­rate into noth­ing­ness and the ad­ven­tur­ers who had been trans­formed into nat­u­ral won­ders re­turn to hu­man form, about which all re­joice.

The plot lines in­ter­sect fe­lic­i­tously and are not so com­pli­cated as to con­fuse oper­a­go­ers. Rather than con­tem­plate moral con­flict from var­i­ous an­gles, as Han­del’s his­tor­i­cal and Clas­si­cal-themed operas tend to do, this opera rev­els in its world of fan­tasy. What de­lights mod­ern play­go­ers in some of Shake­speare’s most beloved plays is likely to also de­light them in this opera: the mag­i­cal pow­ers wielded by Pros­pero in The Tem­pest, whose coun­ter­part Al­cina also reigns over an ex­otic is­land; the trans­for­ma­tion of men into non­hu­man form, like Bot­tom the Weaver changed into an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the cross-dress­ing ro­man­tic mis­un­der­stand­ing of Twelfth Night.

The score is one of the most en­tranc­ing of all Han­del’s operas, scat­ter­ing de­lec­ta­ble in­di­vid­ual num­bers among char­ac­ters of dis­tinct vo­cal types, some­times in mu­si­cal di­a­logue with ob­bli­gato in­stru­ments. Many of these arias have be­come fa­mous as stand­alone items, in­clud­ing Mor­gana’s de­spon­dent “Cre­dete al mio do­lore”; Rug­giero’s ten­der “Mi lusinga il dolce af­fetto,” his con­tem­pla­tive “Verdi prati” (first cousin to “Han­del’s Largo”), and his heroic “Sta nell’Ir­cana piet­rosa tana” (with bold ob­bli­gato horns); Bradamante’s bristling rage aria “Vor­rei ven­di­carmi”; and Oronte’s lyri­cal “Un mo­mento di con­tento.” That qual­i­fies as a Han­delian A-list even be­fore we in­clude the arias that make Al­cina her­self such a mem­o­rable, care­fully drawn char­ac­ter: her hope­ful “Di’, cor mio,” her re­gret­ful “Si son quella,” her an­guished “Ah! mio cor,” her bit­ing “Ma quando tornerai,” and her heartrend­ing “Mi restano le la­grime.” None of these arias are mere bon­bons; they all il­lu­mi­nate facets of char­ac­ters who are sculpted with dra­matic sen­si­tiv­ity. One re­calls the com­ment of the com­poser’s first bi­og­ra­pher, John Main­wair­ing, who wrote in his 1760 Mem­oirs of the Life of the Late Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del: “To speak the plain truth, Han­del was not so ex­cel­lent in Air, where there is no strong char­ac­ter to mark, or pas­sion to ex­press. He had not the art, for which the Ital­ians have ever been re­mark­able, the art of tri­fling with grace and del­i­cacy. His turn was for greater things, in ex­press­ing which it is hard to say, whether he ex­celled most in his Air, or in his Har­mony.”

“Al­cina” opens at Santa Fe Opera at 8:30 p.m. on Satur­day, July 29, and con­tin­ues with per­for­mances at 8 p.m. on Aug. 2, Aug. 11, Aug. 17, and Aug. 23.

Elza van den Heever sings Al­cina. Anna Christy plays Mor­gana. Paula Mur­rihy is Rug­giero. Daniela Mack sings Bradamante. Harry Bicket con­ducts, and David Alden is the di­rec­tor.

Santa Fe Opera is seven miles north of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285. Visit www.santafe­opera.org or call 505-986-5900 or 800-280-4654 for ticket prices and avail­abil­ity.

Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del

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