Although the majority of events in the 2019 London Handel Festival do not begin until late March, the strong musical credentials that underlay La Nuova Musica’s performance of Alcina undoubtedly raised everyone’s spirits in the depths of January, and left them looking forward to far more from the composer in a few months’ time.
This presentation in the concert hall, which did possess a director (John Caird), cut virtually all of the recitative, and replaced it with a narration by June Chichester that was delivered in English by Joanna Lumley while all of the music remained in Italian. Unfortunately, while the narration undoubtedly made the opera easier to understand for those unfamiliar with it, it undermined the evening by self-consciously highlighting the ridiculous nature of the plot. It is undoubtedly fantastical, but the purpose of any performance is to make us truly believe in the scenario as a pre-requisite to making us feel for the characters. This narration made it far less easy for us to do so as it repeatedly reminded us that what we were witnessing was far-fetched and bizarre.
The narration, which even divided the Largo and Allegro of the Overture, also affected the pacing by making the opera feel full of ‘stops’ and ‘starts’. As a result, there were times when it did not feel as if a coherent opera was being presented, but rather that a set of brilliant arias were being introduced and performed one after the other. This was especially disconcerting since a lot of emotion, and indeed changes in emotion, are vested in the recitative. For example, when Melisso reveals Alcina’s deception to Ruggiero it is the recitative that captures the actual moment of change when Ruggiero puts on the ring and sees the light. Here, although the singers silently acted a little during the narration, it was hard to feel much for the precise moment of transformation, and this was attributable to the lack of music rather than the fact that we did not suddenly see a wasteland appear.
It is understandable that in order to fit comfortably into a weekday evening some measures had to be taken to reduce the opera’s length. However, since the character of Oberto was cut altogether and the vast majority of references to men being turned into animals and such came in the narration rather than the arias we heard, it became hard to visualise the set-up of the island. This in turn made it more difficult for us to feel how Alcina was losing her control over it, although this problem would have been far greater had Lucy Crowe not delivered such an outstanding performance. She brought both clarity and strong vibrato to her sound, but the degree to which she micromanaged how much she applied to each phrase, and to each part of her register, made for an extremely polished performance. A good portrayal of Alcina will make us feel for the sorceress, as we certainly did when we heard ‘Ombre pallide’ and ‘Mi restano le lagrime’, and wonder why we actually do, which Crowe also made us do as her rage in ‘Ma quando tornerai’ felt tangible.
In fact, the overall strength of the cast succeeded in making the narration, which under other circumstances might have significantly undermined the evening, feel like little more than a minor niggle. As Ruggiero, Patrick Terry’s countertenor was sublime, with the consistency it showed in feeling truly dreamy from start to finish being remarkable. As a result, his sound seemed to flow naturally through even the most technically demanding parts of his arias. As Bradamante, Madeleine Shaw brought great strength, clarity and warmth to her mezzo-soprano, while there was also good support from William Berger’s Melisso and Christopher Turner’s Oronte.
The orchestra, conducted by David Bates, demonstrated great variations in pace so that the fastest arias revealed real panache while the slowest enabled the emotions to linger over them. There was one moment when the slow pace felt excessive, but generally in these instances the precision of the orchestra and the talents of the singers enabled the arias to bring out so much more while introducing no downsides.
The simple stagecraft, which included instrumental soloists coming to the centre on occasions, worked well, with Rebecca Bottone’s performance of Morgana’s ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ proving to be one of several moments over the evening when every aspect of music and performance came together perfectly. Not only did Bottone sing and act this challenging aria brilliantly, but, with Leo Duarte on the oboe standing next to her, the orchestra seemed almost physically to radiate out the sound that this pair generated.
The London Handel Festival 2019 continues until 29 April, with the majority of events occurring from 27 March onwards. For the full programme of events visit the designated website.
For details of all of its recordings and forthcoming events visit La Nuova Musica website.