Bridgewater church hosts a magical opera
By Gilbert Mott (contributing writer)
Posted: 09/19/2008 02:11:20 AM EDT
The casual concertgoer knows George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" and perhaps a few snatches from the rest of his work, but during his time the composer gained some of his greatest renown in the opera house. For over three decades, mostly in London, Handel wrote operas that were all the rage.
They tended to have outlandish plots that would have been hard to keep straight even if the operas had not been sung in Italian; house lights were kept on so English operagoers could follow the translations in their programs. They were filled with heroism, magic and sorcery.
When they went out of fashion in London, Handel turned to the oratorio, and his operas were largely forgotten. In modern times they have seen a revival, though their stylized conventions make it tricky to stage them for today's audiences. The music endures, however, with its emotional clarity, melodic richness and stylistic variety.
On Saturday the Bridgewater Congregational Church presented Handel's "Alcina," in a production that took advantage of the church's intimate space and fine acoustics. Staging was simple but effective, scenery minimal and accompaniment just a piano. The program book outlined the plot (it took several readings, but one finally got straight all the twists, turns and disguises). The small cast of singers did the rest and the work came across both musically and dramatically.
Handel usually wrote the big, heroic roles (male or female) in his operas for high voices -- female singers or castrati (we don't go there in today's operatic world). Of the four women in Bridgewater's cast, two portrayed men; a third took the part of a woman who spends most of the opera disguised as a man (yes, it gets complicated). Alcina, the title role, is an enchantress with a knack for turning people into beasts. Soprano Linda Burton sang the part with a fine feeling for line and a strong dramatic presence. Soft singing was especially effective; when she pushed for more volume the sound suffered, and the voice sounded covered and not free.
Ruggiero, Alcina's lover who eventually spurns her, is one of those male-sung-by-female characters (known to opera buffs as "pants" roles). The young mezzo-soprano Allegra de Vita was a standout in the part on Saturday. She showed a strong stage presence from the start and a flexible coloratura style that got better as the evening went on. Her top register rings out and the bottom is dramatic and strong. The production had her sing from various spots in the church and she moved with grace and conviction, like the ardent youth she portrayed. Her "Sta nell' ircana," a showpiece aria for Ruggiero, capped off a bravura performance, in a breathless tempo (a slightly slower one would have been fine) and high-flying ornamentation that displayed her virtuosity while still respecting the original vocal line.
Valerie Sorel sang Bradamante, Ruggiero's former lover who wins him back. The program noted that she is a soprano, though the role is meant for a lower voice. She showed her versatility in a rich-toned voice that was smooth throughout its range. Her recitative singing (the sung speech that carries the dialogue along in opera) was especially sensitive and expressive. Faster, more agile passages sometimes sounded rough.
Soprano Rachel Antman, as the boy Oberto, sang with a rich sound and stylish ornamentation. Nimble coloratura passages were clean and bright, perhaps the best of any in the cast, and her top notes rang out freely. As Orante, commander of Alcina's troops, tenor Caleb Stokes was an ardent figure, convincing in his devotion to Alcina. He is a fine singing actor with a ringing tone that sounded frayed towards the top register and labored in some fast passages. Bass David Mimran was a solid Melisso, guardian to Bradamante and all-purpose schemer.
Eric Trudel directed imaginatively, making the best of the space in a way that helped clarify the story and move it forward. He was also a sensitive accompanist, giving the occasional subtle prompt when needed, and dealing graciously with a temporary glitch caused by a missing page in the score.
There are many three-person recitative scenes in the opera and one was struck by how well the singers played off each other and mastered Handel's varied and intricate writing. A trio toward the end was wonderfully detailed, with Alcina, Bradamante and Ruggiero each clearly etching their parts and still blending in a brilliant ensemble.