Sunday, May 6, 2012

Alcina in Bordeaux: Envoûtant!

Alcina, Opéra national de Bordeaux, May 2 2012

Director ..... David Alden
Conductor ..... Harry Bicket

Alcina ..... Elza van den Heever
Morgana ..... Anna Christy
Ruggiero ..... Isabel Leonard
Bradamante ..... Sonia Prina
Oronte ..... Alek Shrader
Melisso ..... Wojtek Gierlach
Oberto ..... Mélody Louledjian

Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine
Choeur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux

Before  expressing my admiration for this opera, this production and all the artists involved, I think it is a right moment to discuss an issue that is often plagued by controversies, strong opinions... the problem of incompatibility of the full length of the score of this (and similar) opera(s) with the dramatical dynamics of its libretto, and the dynamics of our time spent in the theater. Regardless of the production, Alcina contains dramatic tunnels that even emotionally start dangerously approaching the verismo (vulgarity) line, and make feel the opera is too long.  A clever option chosen at the Semperoper Dresden last year was to merge Act 2 and Act 3. The result was one of the most beautifully staged operas I was able to see in years, emotionally and dramatically compelling experience. If the last two acts were not shortened and merged into one, I doubt that even übertalented Jan Philipp Gloger would be able to cope with the over-lengthy Alcina and make the same impact on the enchanted and deeply moved crowd [you can catch his show next year in Dresden].
In contrast to the Dresden show, the Staatsoper in Vienna presented their first Alcina on the big stage  a little over a year ago and the result was very uneven: despite a superb cast and a fantastic orchestra  the show was constantly straddling the edge of boredom . The reason is that the organizers decided to go on with the full length of the score. The surprisingly uninspiring staging by Adrian Noble didn't help either.

David Alden produced a much-much better show than the one by Adrian Noble [available on DVD], but despite his great talent and the supreme musical performance at the premiere, there were several moments in Act 2 and in Act 3 that could have been safely left out without running the risk of delivering an incoherent score or producing a messy theater. Quite the contrary: it would have made a stronger impact on the spectators at the beautiful Bordeaux opera house. Why not cutting Act 2 and Act 3?

I understand the "respect the composer" argument that the rigid proponents of the "no cut is acceptable" rule reiterate over and over again. However if the purpose of cuts is to improve the dramatic line of the opera as to make it closer to the public of our time --without ruining the beauty of the score-- then we are talking about common sense. The arguments like  "How much do you cut? Where do you draw the line?" are easy to rebut: "Leave it to the experts!"

Having that off my chest, I can only express my complete admiration for everyone involved in this show.

Elza van der Heever is a bit like Heidi Melton: she's both dramatic and lyric soprano, and I love the combination. I am not surprised to read that she sings beautifully the bigger roles such as Elsa, Desdemona, Leonora, while being terrific as Alcina, Fiordiligi...  She must be wonderful as Vittelia (Clemenza) and Didon (Les Troyens). Her voice is big and beautiful in all registers, exhibiting an uncommon flexibility that is welcome --if not necessary-- to vocally sculpt all facets of Alcina. On the night of the premiere Elza was truly great and I am more than looking forward to listening to her singing again!

Isabel Leonard almost instantly became my favorite singer a few years ago in Salzburg (Così fan tutte). Her technique is exemplary, her voice wonderfully guided to bring depth to the characters she incarnate with intelligence and with undeniable acting talent. She brings that new style to the opera in which the vocal brilliance adds to the theatrical dimension of her presence on stage.  To that add the fact that she's particularly gorgeous and there is your singer for the 21st century.
On the night of the premiere her Ruggiero was vocally splendid. She was scenically impeccable, which was one of the key elements for the success of the show, because Ruggiero is the central character in this production. Bravissima!

Alek Schrader does not have a big voice and that's the only thing that is not special about him. Otherwise,  after his Rake in Lille and especially after this Oronte in Bordeaux, you cannot escape the obvious: he really is special and I can understand why so many people fall in love with his expressive and classy singing. He completely absorbs the role, personalizes every line of his part: his singing is fully integrated in his absolutely remarkable acting. He's theater!

I saw Anna Christy a few years ago in Paris where she was Oscar in a famously awful production of Un ballo in maschera (Gilbert Deflo). I was too angry after that show to keep any good memory of it and so this was my first time to really listen to the bella Anna singing. She's your rock solid coloratura and the role of Morgana fits her like a glove. She surfed all the perilous passages in her arias with apparent ease and charmed everyone by her scenic presence. Excellent!

When Sonia Prina is in form, she rocks. At the premiere she trilled like Cecilia Bartoli, which with her alto voice is more than impressive --  and the crowd obviously loved it. As we're very much used to see Sonia in the pants roles, it was weird to see her sporting the wedding gown in the end of the last Act of this Alcina. Her Bradamante was passionately sung and acted: Brava!

The cast is completed by Mélody Louledjian, particularly brilliant in her second aria, and Wojtek Gierlach whose rich and expressive bass voice brought a stability to the show otherwise filled by the spectrum of high voices. Very classy singing by Wojtek!

Harry Bicket was extremely attentive to the singers, remained focused at keeping the orchestra alert throughout the show. It was obvious that he prepared very well the orchestra and the singers.  I only hope it wasn't him at the origin of the idea to go on with the full size of this lengthy score.

What about the show? Like any other talented director, David Alden immediately recognized in Ruggiero the central character for his show. He sees in Ruggiero an ordinary young man of our time who, after living a routinely life, is facing an important moment when he's about to make a big decision -- whether or not marrying Bradamante-- and driven by a mental fear, he is rebelling against that change: Is he really ready for such a big step? Does he want to live his life passively (do the things you're expected/supposed to do)? Is he really in love with Bradamante? Is she really a woman of her dreams? That state of mind is represented by a fictitious theater of his fantasies that at first looks abandoned, and then little by little the world of his fantasies become richer after he meets Alcina. She is the woman of his fantasies. He's enchanted, obsessed, and spends more and more of his time at that theater.
Like in any love relationship, you can perfectly detect the moment when the emotional intensity of your partner's involvement  drops a notch. That's what Bradamante felt with Ruggero, and being a strong & resolute woman she decides to fight for his love, and show him that she might not be a woman of his fantasies but she loves him unreservedly -- which is what will eventually make him abandon his fantasies and come back to her. And so, Ruggiero returns in the end to Bradamante, to their little-bourgeois life in a pleasant-ville, Dreamsville (there David tackles the thought-suffocating world of advertisers by imposing a huge billboard in the background of the scene of marriage between Bradamante and Ruggiero. Commercials and advertisers rip your liberty and even your dreams!)

So to me the ending with Ruggero embracing Bradamante and a boring life he feared in the beginning, is a signal that he is a weak character. I preferred --and this is a totally personal preference!-- the Gloger's option, who sees in Ruggero an impossible fight between his genuine and fatal love for Alcina, and his duty and devotion to his family. [In the Gloger's show, Ruggero finally commits suicide]  

In the first act the fictitious theater is abandoned and then progressively populated by men wearing animal masks (men who fell in love with Alcina without being loved in return), Alcina, Morgana, Oronte. Morgana is shown as a mirror image of Ruggiero. She too is unreservedly loved by Oronte but is unsure whether or not she's ready to get fully involved with him. Oronte is jealous, he's in pain, he is filled with rage (transformed to a gorilla who bites his own hand), and even mean... but all these emotions are driven by his incommensurable love for Morgana. When Morgana figured out that her affair with 'Ricciardo' was only a consequence of her fear from committing herself to a marriage, she was back to Oronte -- Oronte whose mind was finally at peace. Later on we see her pushing a stroller and yelling after her husband Oronte. ;)

If the theater looked poor and abandoned in the first act, in the second act it looked  like taken from surrealistic paintings by Salvador Dalì. In other words, the imaginary world in which Ruggiero found his refuge becomes lively and more comfortable, but at the same time there was something decedent-looking. That the theater is indeed imaginary becomes actually clear only in the third act. At the beginning of the first two acts the action starts in front of a raw of doors that resemble those leading to the boxes when you walk the corridors of the beautiful Opéra de Bordeaux. It's a whole world that separates the real life from the life of imagination and fantasies that live behind these doors. The temptation to step behind these doors is too big even when it fills you with fear that you might face your inner self that you --subconsciously or intentionally-- do not want to face.

David Alden demonstrates the value of theater in this show. It is not just entertainment but it does have an entertaining component. It is not what you can see on TV: it is a real life drama but with a subtle yet powerful emotional impact on the spectator that transcends the framework of reality. It is theater at its best. David has no ambition to provide TV, Cirque de Soleil, or a Broadway show, and yet he has that know-how that makes his shows look elegant, spectacular, but never shallow. His theater is introspective in essence but without recourse to cheap dramatic effects, or a dreaded verismo (Dieu nous en garde!). For the American standards he's the very example of what you can call "thinking outside the box" (especially when compared to a long list of painfully talentless --but 'hard-working'-- US directors). I hope he will bring Regie to the Met next year, i.e. without trying to please everyone, but the less-conservative Met operagoers.

In this show I loved the contentious jealousy dance that must be a reference to the Marthaler kind of theater. It worked impeccably in Alcina!

I feared the house wouldn't be full on the night of the premiere because, at the same time, the national TV live broadcast the only debate between the presidential candidates. To my surprise the house was full and the crowd was certainly better served than those who opted to stay at home and watch the debate that --as we all know-- is pointless (today is the election day in France, by the way).

And so after the brilliant Jean-François Sivadier production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea in Lille, a terrific L'italiana in Algeri in Nancy by David Hermann, a very well mounted curiosity-opera La Muette de Portici by a very talented Emma Dante, in addition to a cleverly staged Nixon in China at Châtelet, this Alcina in Bordeaux comes as a much desired sign of optimism*: good opera productions in France are still possible. Even if these several cannot compensate a large number of unbelievably shallow, lazy, wastefully and incompetently produced operas, it is still a sign of life and we more than love it.
*To be fair I should mention a few great revivals (1, 2, 3) at the otherwise agonizing Paris Opera as far as the creativity is concerned. 

The only truly recommendable production of Alcina available on DVD is the one produced in Stuttgart by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito with the phenomenal Catherine Naglestad and Alice Coote.
Numerous allegoric elements of this Handel's operas were brilliantly explored in the Robert Carsen produced a superb Alcina in Paris more than 10 years ago -- later also presented at La Scala. As of today, if you can catch the Jan-Philipp Gloger production in Dresden, or the one in Bordeaux directed by David Alden, please do.

Rehearsal photos:

Production Photos (from the 3rd Act only) [©Frédérick Desmesure]:

My pics:

Morgana and Oronte: Anna Christy and Alek Shrader

Isabe Leonard (on her left: Anna Christy, Alek Shrader and Mélodie Louledjian)

Sonia Bradamante Prina and Isabel Ruggiero Leonard

The only pic I succeeded to take with Elza van den Heever in it. It is obviously with Isabel Leonard too

David Alden with Simon Mills (lights) and Gideon Davey (sets & costumes)

Maestro Bicket

A few images filmed during the final dress rehearsal for France3 TV:


  1. Looking forward to Elza van der Heever as Elizabeth in Maria Stuarda next season at the Met...

    1. Very good! Her Elsa is apparently great and her Leonora in Frankfurt has been praised by pretty much all of the German press. In Bordeaux they speak of her memorable Elettra (Idomeneo) and her prima donna (Ariadne). To that add a terrific Alcina and we can only hope she sings Didon one day in the near future.

      She will be good as Elisabetta. She was probably a better fit for Stuarda than Joyce. Joyce will be suffering big time. Stuarda might be a tad too high for a sopranizing mezzo, and Elza might be too dominant. We'll see...

  2. Well, Alcina seems too long for you because you don't like that kind of opera that much. The reason why there should not be cuts in Alcina is that (nearly) every aria is a musical wonder. And you praise Harry Bicket, who is the main reason (with the very un-Baroque orchestra) why this particular show seems a little bit long... He's always boring, unfortunately!
    I will publish a post on this same Alcina in a few minutes.