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.
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