Review: ‘Alcina’ at Santa Fe Opera

Editor’s Note: Our Steve Cohen is in Santa Fe, New Mexico this week, where he’s enjoying the local arts scene and seeing the work of Santa Fe Opera, a company with a close connection to Opera Philadelphia. That connection has resulted in highly acclaimed productions like The Elixir of Love and Cold Mountain, both of which premiered in Santa Fe before coming to Philadelphia.

Today, Steve looks at Santa Fe Opera’s production of Handel’s Alcina.

Anna Christy. Photo by Ken Howard.
Anna Christy. Photo by Ken Howard.

When we think of Handel we picture powdered wigs and formal, slow moving dramas. Not so in this new production at the Santa Fe Opera.

This is an immersive experience with audience involvement. Dancers and acrobats express the feelings of the principals, and even the leading singers twirl and spin as they trill. This does not detract from the meaning of their words; rather, it reinforces.

Never do we get the feeling that motion is extraneous and is supplied to distract us. Instead, the movements are motivated by the words in the original text. For example, if a soprano sings an aria about a lost love from her past, that former lover may appear and the two of them may mime an episode from their romance as she continues to sing.

The music is a surprise for folks who know Handel mainly for his reverent Messiah. Alcina contains a series of sprightly dance tunes, and dozens of romantic songs.

The problem for modern audiences is that Handel adhered to a formula in which melodies were intentionally repeated, followed by a contrasting middle section, then another repetition of the first melody. Some listeners today find this to be tedious.

Director David Alden handles this by having the performer sing the first section, then make a quick exit (say, through a door), then appear a few seconds later through another door to sing the repetition. Each section of each aria has new action – and sometimes a new costume. One can never get bored during these quick-change moments.

Alcina’s plot (by an anonymous librettist in 1735) is about men loving women who, instead, love different men, and so on; complicated by the fact that one of the women is a sorceress who turns people with whom she is angry into jungle beasts.

Elza van den Heever. Photo by Ken Howard.
Elza van den Heever. Photo by Ken Howard.

Elza van den Heever, the South African soprano who has sung leading roles at the Met and other major houses, was a tower of strength as the sorceress. Daniela Mack and Anna Christy were delightful as young women, Paula Murrihy was appealing as a young man, tenor Alek Shrader was thrilling as Alcina’s General, and bass Christian Van Horn was sonorous as a tutor.

Harry Bicket, the London-born Handel specialist, led a musically gorgeous performance. Without needing any gimmicks, he provided an impressive amount of tonal variety and nuance from the orchestra pit.

The spectacular scenic and costume design are by Gideon Davey, the lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth, and the choreography by Beate Vollack.

This production illustrates the innovation and high quality that the Santa Fe Opera has been providing for sixty years. Many of its activities involve singers, conductors and musical organizations from Philadelphia; more about that tomorrow.

I must mention one happy coincidence. My lodging is in a casita that once was a stable on the estate of Nicholas Ortiz, who traveled from Mexico City to Santa Fe a few years after Handel wrote Alcina. Ortiz became one of the richest men in Santa Fe, and his mansion is now the Hilton Santa Fe Hotel. What’s notable is that Ortiz was a Spanish Jew, and he found acceptance in a city where Native Americans lived together harmoniously (and intermarried), and welcomed newcomers. That’s one of the unique features of this town.

Running Time: Four Hours, including two intermissions.

Christian Van Horn and Paula Murrihy. Photo by Ken Howard.
Christian Van Horn and Paula Murrihy. Photo by Ken Howard.

Alcina had its final performance on August 23, 2017 as part of the repertory of the Santa Fe Opera. The company’s season ends August 27, 2017 at the Opera House – 301 Opera Drive, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tickets to next year’s festival can be purchased online.


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