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Handelís Alcina
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Matthew Paris

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Post Mon Dec 22, 2003 6:27 pm - Handelís Alcina
I saw Handelís Alcina at the opening of the State Opera on September 9th. It was a gala event, as they say. There was a banquet of endive salad, kiwi fruit, marzipan, roasted lamb, two kinds of Danish and excellent bubbly yellow wine at a scarlet and ivory decorated banquet in the lobby.

Everybody down in these soft and cushioned pits of pleasure had tuxedos, were ready to devour the local dainties a minute after the opera had ended. Behind them as they dined was a montage of shots of all the dull operas the company had commissioned over many decades, every one of which were part of a host of saintly corpses which from their very nativity had never found a place in any repertory.

The Met has had the same glorious record of consistent misjudgment spending their big bucks to buy evenings of dullness from a death of talent about knowing who the hell in music can do what. These opera companies should both out of discretion and shame be more quiet about such waste of lucre filched from their patrons, Of course a coincidental failure at identifying true prophecy should make them to any scientist a reliable gauge of the false if they always see dross as gold. I would want to forget in general this sorry past in which they have bored now haply perished gulls and rubes.

These formally dressed gourmands below were serenaded within seconds after they left the opera by the strains of a nine piece jazz band playing swing hits from the early 40s. Operas are now august ceremony; they doesn't seem to have any relation anymore to a local dance band. At least they werenít eating and dancing to a few minstrel shuffles written by Handel.

I thought the swing band was pretty banal. Museum art when crypt keeping is what our society thinks is aesthetics is the franchise of wanna-be body snatchers and funeral directors, not operatic toomlers; these hapless feasters below had been luckier in their musical ambiance with Handel inside the hall. Can one imagine a Meyer Davis clone after Handel? Feh!

Handel on the other hand was more worth the mortality of these gilded churls; he had been the Verdi of his time. He had in many ways a similar gift for the theatre as the great Giuseppe; unlike Verdi he was also a great keyboard virtuoso. Handel was a great melodist, a subtle sonic technician, a master of transparency and simplicity when he wanted it, an ippissimus of massive effects if it suited him. He was also very intricately psychological as Verdi and Wagner in his treatment of libretti.
He wrote a enormous quantity of great operas in which while always working in a recognizable international idiom of the time with German, Italian, English and even occasionally French versions; like Verdi he never repeated himself.

Most of his operas have a kind of multiple mirror effect in their plots and characters that donít feature one central character as does Mussorsky in Boris Godunov. This one does it with the overtones of tragic mortality that are inherent in that focus we associate more commonly with the 19th century. Long before Byron and romanticism Alcina has that kind of epic and compassionate look at a supreme egoist. This production of Alcina was at once almost flawless, both great as an ensemble offering and staged with a beautifully idiosyncratic flair by Neil Patel. His sets of opening and closing walls and silhouetted or transparent veils wee austere and imaginative rather than fussily explicit depicting Alcinaís island of magic. The opening and closing walls that were really gates implied in their very use of downstage and upstage space the hidden corridors to arcana and wisdom that this opera is about. The notion of an island itself for witches and their wizardry is a large metaphor for inner solarity.

The larger than life and beautiful Christine Goerke as Alcina was luscious, spectacular, frightening, piteous and passionate by turns in a role that wildly flaunts these most ferocious passions.

Handelís operas, almost all about love and honor in a code-like chivalric way, are in their very narrow formality about what they say and do makes them implicit very erotic. The very ceremony in their feral hungers makes what is not said or seen all the more fantastical and imaginative in the shadows. Since amorousness is a primal element in many of us it has more power when it is alluded to as literally unspeakable beyond a few ritual words, not possibly explicit; it is precisely their genius that they are utterly attenuate recitals of pure manners.

There is nothing more resonant to the imagination than the crepuscular intimacy or atrocity which the audience knows most be lurking somewhere. There is nothing more stifling to the imagination and primal hungers than the explicit that defines among other things all too banally what has never been previously thought of or acted upon.

Keith Jameson as Oronte, a kind of comic lowlife serpent counterpoint to he main romantic triangle squabbling with his mistress Morgana played fetchingly by Lauren Skuce, was a singing actor in the tradition of the late Norman Trieigle and the seemingly immortal Sam Ramey of the sort that the State Opera has been nurturing. He is a piece of work. He can vary his voice from a farcical bark to a sweet lyric tenor.

Ruggiero, played by Katherine Goeldner sings beautifully but does not act with the panache and aplomb of the other actors. Itís unfortunate because she has a fine and rich voice and a stalwart physical presence. Her part needs aa singing actress that can show as Norman Treigle did in the same role the movement of her character from a sybaritical decadence to a severe embrace of honor. Joshua Winograd was martial and affecting as Melisso, the one role written for a low male voice.

The conductor, Daniel Beckwith, presiding with authority at the harpsichord as Handel did, kept the orchestra working as a subtle and fluid instrument that reflected all of Handelís sonic felicities after some initial assays in mircotonality in the first act.

Alcina is a psychological singularity in Handelís parade of great hits. Probably the subsequent operas most like it are Medea and Nabucco. It resembles in theme only Handelís oratorios Saul and perhaps inferentially the much more massive Israel In Egypt. Alcina is not only a great witch and thus larger than life with her uncanny powers; she is one who has the ordinary desires of lesser and duller women for a hearth, for amusing lovers that she can keep on her magic island. Like the worst of us, male or female, she can be rather amoral and wicked in the way she coarsens her more hapless amarants until they are beasts or worse. Like Homerís Circe she controls presumable otherwise sane and honorable men by metaphysical slights, feints, illusion and shameless transmogrifying acts of even more subtle amorous mendacity.

Unlike nearly all of us she is in civil contact with the divine; she sometimes bring down baleful spirits. Her resident gods like the Daughters of Night are scary to formidable. Her magic island, a place in Homer, Ariosto and Shakespeare that is a metaphor for both theatre and a puissant inner life, includes for this sorceress rule over armies of beasts, various slaves, even warrior entities beyond language. She represents in her majestic mein both the ordinary magical creatrix, epicure and chamber tyrant that may be all too familiar to us at any time and place. She is in some ways a female counterpart to the equally greedy yet piteous Boris Godunov.

A sonic delight and magic show, Alcina is a perfect choice for opening a season for a company that singlehandedly brought back Handel to the New York opera house in the 60s and 70s; Alcina is by any standard a great opera, like Handelís other theatre pieces in its use of da capo arias and late baroque style, its great part for its protagonist has no precedent. It might remind one in our time of Media, La Traviata, Les Troyens and Die Walkure; it features a heroic female character of powerful and sometimes sinister aspect, a gift for sublime rapture. Alcina alone pays a very obvious homage to Henry Purcellís Dido And Aeneas in a very great aria based on a delicious ground or passacaglia bass at the end of the first act. Handel never wore anything else like this.

This aria ranks with the Queen of the Night arias and Purcellís own moving depiction of the death of Dido for scorching complexity of passionate emotion. Alcina has a later sumptuous aria with an extended and florid viola da gamba ostinato part that adorns the second act also unique in Handel. It has no model; it may remind us of similar devices used later by Meyerbeer, Bellini and Verdi. Bach sometimes has such effects in his cantatas; Handel almost certainly never heard them.

The orchestration even for Handel is remarkably varied. There is a bumptious number for two E Flat horns ostinato, a particular striking use of unison to create a feeling of emptiness in Alcinaís frightening and desolate aria as she realizes her magical powers are waning. The violins double her melodic line with no harmonic cushion with an effect that is chillingly cold and etheric as Barleysí ending to his Cleopatra, for that matter like the last sustained unison chord of Moses und Aron.

Handel was not merely one with a gift for endless melody but quite an orchestral innovator. Barleys and Schoenberg knew about Handel; Handel didnít know about them. Yet Handelís operas are really chamber works for small theaters; they commonly have an opening and closing chorus, otherwise are mostly skeins of solo arias interspersed with bits of opera seria orchestrally backed reccicative and occasional luscious duets. They are written mostly in the treble clef though the great baritone Norman Treigle sang in Alcina with Beverley Sills at its debut at this State Opera in 1966, taking his part down at least a couple of octaves.

We are now avid for countertenors and women playing male roles if, physical humanists that we are, we arenít quite up to an evening of amusement by castrati.

We have a passion for authenticity more proper to paleontologists that may produce some artificial gelding for the select cognoscenti of the future. I reckon Handel, a theatre animal, would have written all the male parts for tenors and baritone himself if he were producing the opera nowadays. He was a very practical man for a genius. This performance cuts a measured middle ground between the definitive and the possible. The orchestra used recorders instead of flutes, a viola da gamba instead of a cello.

Alcina after a peppy presentation of an oddly harmonized and witty overture rife with some very unique sonorities in oddly rhythmic double trills done in thirds, gets off to a casual start, then picks up to become one glorious endless run of gorgeous and luscious aria of every kind. Some of the melodies are vigorous sicilianos; others are in a languorous Venetian 4/4 like a soft caress. This isnít severely absolute music; Handel pays particular attention to each word and emotion though one canít say the anonymous librettist was much of an Italian word slinger.

Handel and his unknown collaborator were adapting Ariostoís Orlando Furioso, the great epic of the Renaissance, loved by English literary types in particular since the 16th centra. Their translation of it, I believe still the only compete version this verse in English following its stanzas and meter to this day, was fashioned by a rather ill mannered English knight of Elizabeth the Firstís time who was very fluent in Italian; he was told one day by the Queen in that day of massive translations of everything, not to return to court until he had translated all of this epic into English verse. It took this lordly fellow seven to eight years. Since Elizabeth executed some of her court out to favor it was a serious mandate.

Handelís audience took this opera as a setting of a classic text they thought was a near Bible in mythic form of human psychology for all time as the Hellenes felt about Homer. Our age might be a little fuzzy on Ariosto. As our Western culture became populist and less interested in the virtues of nobility it tended to turn away from even great and in Ariostoís case rather deep and subtle epics of an exoterically chivalric nature.

Ariosto may not be read much by us; that is merely a mark of our general talent for loss we donít even know. If we can reach across the centuries into a prior psychological language about passion very different than Freudís, like Freud focusing on sex, he might inform us about the subtleties of male and female character.

We tend to think as Cervantes did that itís all pretty absurd stuff. Obviously Handel and his audience didnít think so or they wouldnít have mounted this opera. We might stop to think it over; they werenít dopes.

Alcina is really beneath its fantastical garb a study of extraordinary women as hearth makers and creatrixes conjuring of both substance and illusion that net men in their domestic life. As Boris Godunov takes up the same idea in males; his magic island is Russia.

Alcina dresses the common nature of nearly all women with the power to do wizardry checked in life if not in Art by laws, even the edicts of nature. We are all as children and adults fascinated by magic; it seems to offer the wizard a chance to bypass such scurvy limitations. A king has the same feeling about political power. It takes decades of adult life to realize that a free and powerful adult life is much more interesting and nurturing than skills at power or thaumaturgy.

Alcina learns such verity at the end of this opera. He final argument against nature and love promoted by the freedom of the spirit is that it wonít work out as well for the lovers as her illusions. Her prophecy is true; it wonít. Since she is left alone on the stage contemplate the destruction of a world of vapors and necromantic turns that have failed her in ordinary ways as well as dramatic ones, her longer life in which she never gave herself a chance to love or be loved might be more piteous.

Alcina is in one sense the consummate Artist. Her love life is her work. To make the normal into a miracle is what Art does; life too often guises miracles in the ordinary. Alcina fathoms that a war against nature is more attractive when one seemingly as necromantic weapons to fight it. Yet power doesnít help Alcina anymore than it had aided Boris Godunov.

Alcina is a moral discourse about the clandestine ethical neutrality and mercurial nature of love. Passion as Plato says can elevate one to moral inquiries and honoring oneís intimates and neighbors; it can as it does when one falls into Alcinaís ruthless hands coarsen the spirit; the freed prisoners of Alcinaís amorous incarceration say at the end of the opera, like the later affecting Prisonerís Chorus of Beethoven in his Fidelio, they lived in the ďblindness of nightĒ lacking any adult human will.

A great and complex woman whose very extraordinary qualities themselves turn out to be neutral, Alcinaís enemies arenít external. Her supposed virtues donít inspire her to trust nature nor check her infantile will. Ruggiero, her lover at the beginning of the opera who has been deluded by her wizardry, says initially he is a disciple of Cupid; he has a whole religion and its axioms justifying his life as a dupe and fool. At its denouement Ruggiero rejects not merely pleasure and comfort but the chance at a long life itself for honor.

His own life is wedded to a seemingly capricious and unruly nature considerably superior; if he is personally weaker than in a show of illusions he has learnt something he could not have garnered from than Alcina and witchery.

Obviously Ariosto and Handel have a lot to tell us if we are listening to their philosophical sermons on love as well as their amusing words and music. Alcina is a profound cautionary tale about will and nature, illusion and reality, for both men and women. If its cultural roots in its inquiry about the often mysterious character of humanity go back at least to the Odyssey, the prodigal generosity of Orlando Furioso speculates on everything was in the background of the minds of Handelís audience. Handel focused his much more narrow drama on two cantos of this masterpiece about amorous relations between men and women.

Rather well summed up by George Meredith in his famous sonnet, Lucifer In Starlight, there is value and sanity in the laws of Creation magic cannot hope to emulate. This is the discourse of the first book of The Faerie Queene, the underlying sermon one finds in Frankenstein and Dracula.

We might wonder why Handel operas, the only achievement in this genre in a league with Verdiís, were interred for about 150 years, why as well these masterpieces about honor and love have been mounted with such success after 1960 in the greatest epicurean age on the planet since the heyday of the Roman empire. One might ask, qui bono?

I would reckon the 19th century was much more on the side of Alcina than Handelís time had been. After all the quintessential opera of that romantic age was Tristan with the rest of Wagnerís supposedly profound nacral apotheosis of brainless passion not far behind in exposition of modern psychology. Tristan and Isolde are both undone by magic, not tragic because they are victimized by it but donít produce it. They are perceived by many as consummately beautiful and trivial as Pelleas and Melisande.

Some take in Mozart and Verdiís music dreams with the same hunger for the superficial, an identical disdain for the rather strident ethical and political polemics in these antique spectacles. Itís possible and even respectable to listen to Handel, Mozart and Verdi like this. The music is great; the libretto vaguely sensational. Why not?

One might take Alcina as Handel meant it and his audience appreciated it: a profound contemporary musical sermon. We after all are like Handelís much smaller world of the 18th century English affluent and noble set a society in which anybody with a television set can outdo any witch in illusions. We can triumph over nature even if we are morons and without divine charisma for a while with less trouble and more reliability from our amusing machines than Alcina could have ever hoped for.

Her gods finally fail her; only a blackout slows down our more pliant and slavish plastic entities who sate our shallow whims. Alcina learns at least a little by the end of the opera that she could not be loved and feared simultaneously. Nature might take a long time to assert its petty laws against short term magic; yet the day had always been lurking in the thickets for Alcina when it would do so.

Thus Alcina is a plea for its audience to learn the subtle crafts of intimacy. It shows by example what infallibly doesn't produce trust and closeness. It offers both in its main line of action, its subplot with Oronte and his mistress how even coquettishness to try to diminish oneís mate is very destructive finally to oneself. At least Alcina is always carnally available. Even without magic and the soul of a lackey if one wants to embrace oneís egoism in intimacy one pays terribly in long term weakness and debility when trust is broken down between oneself and an honest lover.

As Handel shows in many operas, the dark side of honor is the human capacity for betrayal. Alcina has entered a game with marked cards all know close down the double sided capacities in the nature of intimacy to heal or hurt itself; she has done this deep damage to herself, possibly excuse she feels in her heart she cannot be loved. Her magic that enslaved amarants was the biggest illusion she evoked; she herself in the end was its dupe. Alcina may seem initially fantastical to us; she has in fact the same disdain for family, work and children, the same greedy hunger for a parade of entertainments and lovers she throws away when she is no longer intrigued by them.

It is the nature of myth as well as dream to disguise parables. It is a sermon by priests in cloaks and masks who persuade us at first they are either scientists or clowns. Handelís audience of rich opera goers werenít any different than our own; they had the same sybaritic morals as we folksy New World republicans.

Ariosto and his enigmatic motto pro bono malium puts to us some unsettling inquiries into how good and evil make each other its harvest. The insight wasnít lost on readers like Edmund Spenser and John Milton. Alcina can be all of a improbable musical souffle for the gulls and is a mythic masterpiece if we listen to the dead, few of whom have as much interest in duping fools as the living.
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