Friday, February 10, 2017

ALCINA @ OPERAROX

The fledgling company OperaRox Productions, founded by Kim Feltkamp and Jaimie Appleton as an offshoot of the OperaRox tumblr page, produced a sold-out two-show run of G.F. Händel’s Alcina, directed by Maayan Voss de Bettancourt, at the Player’s Theater in the West Village on Friday and Sunday, February 3th and 5th.

The source material of Alcina’s libretto is Orlando Furioso, an early 16th century epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto. The list of composers that have used the poem as the basis for operas is long and includes Lully, Rameau, Caccini, Haydn, Vivaldi, Thomas and others. Händel himself has two other canonical operas using the poem’s stories (Orlando and Ariodante).

The plot of Alcina can seem convoluted on paper, though once the characters’ names, alter-egos and genders become familiar, things become clear. OperaRox offered a succinct synopsis that’s worth quoting:

            Alcina is a sorceress with her own island. Her sister, Morgana, is in a relationship with Oronte, but falls for Bradamante, who is dressed as her own brother so she can save her fiancé, Ruggiero, from Alcina’s clutches. Melisso, Ruggiero’s commanding officer, accompanies Bradamante to the island and helps Oberto find her lost father.

That’s the gist. What the synopsis leaves out is that Alcina has a pesky habit, when her temper flares, of turning former lovers and people at large into beasts and inanimate objects.

OperaRox comes to the table with a specific production mission. The company is clear about wanting to provide meaningful performance opportunities for young singers that generally haven’t sung their assigned role, create an environment that encourages experimentation, pay its cast and crew, and build general interest in opera, particularly among younger audiences. OperaRox seems to successfully hit these marks.

The opening of the production made clear that neither the director nor her actors would be sheepish about physical intimacy. In the first moments, a domineering Alcina drags on a handsy, sex-slave-like Ruggiero, the two of them necking and making out. The opening was a good preparation for the bumping and grinding, sexual massage, and other raunchy action coming later. The confidence with which the young actors dove into the sensuality was refreshing. The amount of sexuality was abundant but not gratuitous.

Morgana, played by soprano Anna Slate, radiated a contagious delight. She championed the show’s comedic elements with her insatiable but winningly naïve sexual appetite. Slate’s recitatives flowed easily and idiomatically, neither overly spoken nor sung. Her Morgana had a sympathetic core that remained throughout the character’s journey to self-knowledge. One hoped that she would escape the fate to which her foil, Alcina, seemed destined.

Tenor Eric Alexieff proved a sympathetic Oronte. Alexieff was particularly charming as the jaded, abandoned lover commiserating with Ruggiero during his Act I aria. Popping open one beer after another, he elbowed and teased Ruggiero with the tough love of an older sibling.

Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar commanded her musical material as Bradamante. Ashkar sang with both an even and agile tone, handling the difficult coloratura of her arias with poise and clarity. She maintained a calm and focused presence on stage, grounding her scenes by listening and reacting intently and in the moment.

Baritone Kevin Miller portrayed a paternal, well-meaning Melisso. Perhaps too meek to convincingly play a drill sergeant, Miller’s earnestness did add to the show’s heart and fit well with the company’s overall encouraging demeanor and supportive mission.

Mezzo-soprano Chloë Schaaf played Ruggiero, the backbone of the opera, with deep commitment. Responsible for the bulk of the opera’s emotional heavy lifting, Schaaf broke down into forceful convulsions, scolded by his sergeant Melisso for having wronged his wife-to-be Morgana. Schaaf also managed a deft act of emotional subtlety in her act II aria in which Ruggiero convinces Alcina that he is in love, though under his breath mutters, not with Alcina herself. With Schaaf’s portrayal, one couldn’t help but wonder whether Ruggiero felt deeply attached to both Morgana and Alcina and was heart-broken wronging either of them.

As the title role, soprano Zen Wu bounded around the stage confidently, singing voluminously but at times unwieldly. She played an Alcina thirsty for vengeance and blinded by lust.

Ginny Weant, as the young boy Oberto, sang her final aria with momentum and dexterity.

Made up of the cover cast, the chorus sang with a well-honed, appropriately sized mezzo-forte sound. They functioned as Alcina’s semi-sedated minions, most useful as reflections of the sorceress’s state of mind during arias.

The band, led by Dmitry Glivinskiy at an electric keyboard, filled out by Katie von Braun on violin and Spencer Shen on cello, executed the concise orchestration with proficiency and understated style. Cuts to the score were judicious, though more were possible; Bradamante’s act III aria “All’alma fedel” could have mercifully been cut, as it slowed the opera’s pace in the home stretch.


 There were other weak spots in the production – a handful of out of place swear words in the supertitles garnering cheap laughs, varying levels of musical, linguistic, and vocal fluency, some clumsy staging particularly with the chorus, and hardly any set to speak of – regardless, it was a strong effort from a young cast and budding company of bright, hardworking opera devotees.

Review: Jeremy Hirsch
Photos: OperaRox Official Site

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