We live in an era of deception. As if Facebook hadn’t already offered reason to fret over the amplification of fake news, now comes the prospect of an enchanted digital island, a so-called metaverse, in which our illusions, be they benign or ill-intentioned, may run free.
These are not, in fact, new ideas. Dissimulation and enchanted islands alike were catnip to 18th century opera composers, as they have been in literature and myth through the ages. Handel’s late opera “Alcina” is one irresistible example of the extravagant angst and allure they provide. On Tuesday night, Los Angeles Opera imported London-based period-instrument the English Concert — led by its artistic director, Harry Bicket, and a cast of superb singers — for the first of two concert performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (it plays again Friday). It was enough to do the trick.
“Alcina” accomplishes this with little more than a series of marvelous arias — showy, merry, sweet, angry, amusing, seductive, pastorale, heartbreaking, feverish, mystifying — patched together with a recitative that can make unpacking a gender-bending narrative such as this one a challenge. Had it been performed in its completion by the English Concert and singers, the performance would have lasted well over four hours. Lightly trimmed, it clocked in at three hours and 40 minutes at the Chandler.
This fantasy centers on the sorceress Alcina, who lures lovers to her island and then transforms them into beasts, rocks or other bits of scenery. A dashing knight, Ruggiero, who has been seduced by Alcina, is freed from her spell by his fiancée, Bradamante, who arrives in drag disguised as Alcina’s brother, Ricciardo. Alcina’s sister, the likable and fickle Morgana, immediately falls in love with Bradamante, who she believes is a man. All of these roles are sung by women. (The role of Oberto, a young man whose father had once turned Alcina into a tiger, also would have been performed by a woman had the role not been been cut from the show.) What emerges is a feast of vocalism from four multidimensional characters — played by women — who go through epic transformation, and two stock-character men who don’t.
The intended and unintended consequences that these revelations have on the characters lead to jealousy, disillusionment, momentary joy — and, ultimately, devastating hurt, seeming triumph, even a pause to admire nature, as aria follows aria on this dystopian isle. It ends with the defeat of Alcina and Morgana. The beasts and other bits of scenery become men once more. The lovers, Bradamante and Ruggiero, are reunited.
But it is not that easy. Alcina and Morgana get the most extravagant arias. They feel the most strongly. They have the most humanity. The banality of evil is, for Handel, too banal. Although she is portrayed as the villain, Alcina’s suffering is universal. We see ourselves, our own troubled impulses, in her and, to some extent, in her helpmate Morgana. They carry us away with every memorable aria. No one who sings such engrossing, and often ravishing, music with such candor can be all that bad. Right? The real genius of Handel is that we are the deluded.
There are advantages and disadvantages to presenting “Alcina” as a concert performance. The opera has had greatly imaginative stagings, a particularly gripping one from Aix-en-Provence six years ago directed by Katie Mitchell, who disturbingly confronts graphic sex and aging in the performance; it’s available on video. But that approach also distances an audience.
At the Chandler, there was the small, arrestingly virtuosic ensemble with Bicket conducting from the harpsichord, seated with his back to us in a way that never felt demonstrative. The singers in concert dress didn’t necessarily look their parts and didn’t try. Some were more expressive singers than others but almost always in conventional ways. We faced the music and the drama directly.
Soprano Karina Gauvin, who sang the part of Morgana a dozen years ago in arguably the finest recording of the opera, is now a hardened-voiced Alcina. Gauvin’s power lies in her capacity for demonstrating Alcina’s believably intense affection — however insincere — and stunningly sincere bitterness over rejection.
Meanwhile, the scene-stealing soprano Lucy Crowe finds in Morgana a flighty charm at every fabulously sung turn of phrase. Paula Murrihy’s Ruggiero is the easily swayed dunderhead who is entrapped by Alcina. Yet in her nuanced portrayal of someone able to come to his senses, the brilliantly focused Irish mezzo turned Ruggiero into the character whose transformation mattered the most.
Elizabeth DeShong slyly negotiated the gender-fluid characterization of Bradamante. Alek Shrader, as the jealous Oronte (Morgana’s sometime lover), and Wojtek Gierlach, Bradamante’s tutor and truth-teller, commanded their thankless roles.
However, Bicket looked to stay out of the way, making no seeming contact with the singers. Nevertheless, he discreetly empowered singers and instrumentalists, enabling the hours to pass smoothly and easily.
Even so, the stage picture was not imaginative. The massive Chandler is hardly the ideal space for Baroque opera to have the intimacy this piece demands. Almost to the day 35 years ago, in the first month of the first season of L.A. Opera (then Music Center Opera), the company moved off the Music Center campus to effectively stage “Alcina” in the gilded Wiltern Theatre.
A potentially enchanted world happened to lie just feet away from the Chandler, in the currently dark and perfectly proportioned Mark Taper Forum — whose origins as a chamber music hall would have been well-suited to capture the idiosyncrasies of “Alcina.”
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Info: (213) 972-8001 or laopera.org
Running time: 3 hours, 40 minutes