Sunday, October 15, 2023

Alcina: Six Characters in Search of Gender Identity


Vanessa  Goikoetxea
Sunny Martini 

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


The Baroque operas of Georg Frideric Handel number in the dozens, but they are rarely performed in a major opera house relative to the so-called “meat” of the repertoire. This does not detract from the fact that the Baroque master could write tunes with the best of them. He did not hold back on gorgeous arias and ensembles in his 1735 work Alcina, a veritable feast of continuous melody, each more beautiful than the last.

Seattle Opera made a bold choice in programming Alcina for the first time, as part of their main stage season. With only six characters and no chorus, full attention ultimately is focused on these solo performers in this complicated story based on the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. A parallel can be found in the six characters of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (which can be performed in a chamber-like version without chorus), but with a twist: in Alcina, the singers all sing above the staff, without an underlying bass voice to anchor the harmonies.

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Randall Scotting
Sunny Martini

This can be a bit challenging for the listener who is accustomed to hearing that lower voice. Fortunately, the exceptional Seattle cast, all of them returning artists, were up to the huge vocal challenges required of them, including impressive ornamentation in the Da Capo arias. The orchestra consisting of Seattle Symphony musicians accompanied them splendidly.

Heading the cast in the title role as the sorceress one loves to hate but ultimately sympathizes with was Spanish soprano Vanessa Goikoetxea, who reminded the audience that she can be at home, not only in Handel but in everything from Mozart to Bizet. The role of Alcina was made famous by iconic coloratura Joan Sutherland, but Goikoetxea created her own unique version. Her versatile voice soared, making the most of the long phrases while milking the exploitative drama of the role, and her bearing was appropriately queenly as the sorceress who wields and then loses her powers, turning people into wild beasts and more. Her vocal artistry was put to the full test in Act Two, where, required to sing almost continually, she demonstrated her ability to spin a phrase and project a crystal-clear, powerful high “C” with a beefy, full tone that filled the entire house, seemingly without any strain whatsoever.

The countertenor voice can take a bit of getting used to, but as Alcina’s paramour Ruggiero, Randall Scotting made an excellent impression. He negotiated the difficult fioratura in Act One with assurance and remained consistent throughout the evening. His dramatic conflicts were relatable and convincing.

Randall Scotting
Philip Newton
Known for performing everything from bel canto (Rossini’s Cinderella) to high Romantic drama (Carmen) with aplomb, mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson maintained her usual high quality performance standards in the gender-switching role of Bradamante. Aside from the fiendish vocal pyrotechnics, which she brought off effortlessly, Jackson managed to be riveting dramatically, playing both ends against the middle when he/she was thrust into an impossible situation: first hiding her gender, then placating other key characters and convincing them of her true identity. As always, she was enthralling to watch.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Sunny Martini

As Alcina’s sister Morgana, Sharleen Joynt, who was memorable in SO’s Orpheus and Euridice, played the ingenue to the hilt. But it was her dazzling vocal performance that most captivated the audience. Her fresh voice came across beautifully overall, but her fearless leaps into the stratosphere of high “D’s” and “E-flats” brought down the house. Never wavering, she tackled her showpieces with utmost confidence. She is a young singer to watch.

Charleen Joynt,
Philip Newton

Tenor John Marzano had the difficult task of holding his own among his formidable colleagues in a role that was dramatically challenging to play, saving up his forza for the fiendish second act aria, which was a nonstop fireworks display. He handled the rapid fioratura adeptly and showed great potential for more extensive roles.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, in the relatively small role of Bradamante’s protector Melissa, carried herself with calm nobility and anchored the drama with her presence. Unlike the others, she had only one aria, but she made the most of it, performing with ease and poise.

John Marzano
Sunny Martini

Nina Yoshida Nelsen
Sunny Martini

Making her SO conducting debut, Christine Brandes (who formerly has sung the role of Morgana) performed a major miracle in achieving the sound of so-called “authentic” performance practice from modern instruments. She maintained perfect balance in the small but well-chosen ensemble, always attuned to the vocal needs of the singers, never covering them, and allowing them to navigate their multifaceted challenges successfully. The violin and cello solos merit special mention for fine, sensitive playing.

Christine Brandes
Sunny Martini

The rest of the creative team all made their SO debuts, and the production had its hitches. While Ian William Galloway’s video designs were pleasingly evocative of the forests and palm trees of a paradise island, the constant presence of Matthew Richardson’s stage lights was overwhelming and distracting, especially when the lights were raised and lowered during the action, interfering with the sight lines onstage. Hannah Clark’s shifting chair sets were minimal but seemed to represent the fluctuating relationships between the characters.

The production overall also was problematic in that director Tim Albery had several singers disrobing, at times during some hugely difficult passagework. While this is understandable in the case of Bradamante revealing his/her true gender, it generally was disruptive, and also produced a comical reaction from the audience when it was not necessarily called for. To their credit, the singers handled what was required of them with impressive equanimity. However, Albery did excel when it came to action, moving the characters about the stage with both dramatic energy and deep emotional gestures.

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Randall Scotting
Philip Newton

Some very unique and key props included a gleaming, beautifully detailed sword, Alcina’s intricately carved snake cane/staff and matching gold snake-carved compact and lipstick, which added to her powerful sorceress effects, and an enchanted ring. 

Vanessa Goikoetxea, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, John Marzano
Philip Newton

It was unclear whether an imposing, multipurpose bear rug was one of Alcina’s unfortunate beings turned into a wild beast or symbolic of her more animalistic instincts. In either case, it grabbed the attention.

Vanessa Goikoetxea
Sunny Martini

On the whole, Alcina made a positive impression. It’s worth going to see for the glorious music and courageous, proficient singing. Handel lives. 

Photo credits: Sunny Martini, Philip Newton


 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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