Alcina: Essential Opera Doing So Much with So Little
The group of voices that Essential Opera assembled for their production of Handel's 'Alcina' was astonishing. All of them possessed effortless agility and good range.
The ensemble was framed by Essential Opera's founders, sopranos Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt. As 'Morgana', Maureen quickly displayed immense range, strong dramatic skills and exceptional comic ability with a dazzling performance of ''O s'apre al riso'. Her crystalline bell-like tones soared through the space of the Steinmann Mennonite Church as she subtly passed the fun she was having to audience and set the tone for the evening. Her portrayal defined the character as the centrepiece who actually starts most of the trouble the rest of the characters get into.
At the opposite end of the pole Erin Bardua portrayed an 'Alcina' that was more dependent on her power than evil. Her physical gestures and tastefully coloured vocal shadings rounded out the characterization nicely. She has exceptional control over facial expressions, even when singing full out. 'Ah! mio cor' was a defining moment for her as it is for the character. Where she really sparkled though, was during Alcina's final aria, 'Mi restano le lagrime'. Her portrayal of this broken woman's fragility made the "villain of the piece" a deeply sympathetic character.
Musical Director Vicki St. Pierre and Vilma Vitols shone in the roles of 'Bradamante' and 'Ruggiero'. Vicki drew on expressive facial gestures and body language to capture the awkwardness of one caught out of gender. She had many of the comic high points of the evening, especially when she found herself on the receiving end of the affections of Maureen Batt's Morgana'. The two of them played off of each other beautifully. Her rich contralto voice and an array of shadings kept the character's motives clearly defined regardless of the action she was caught in. 'Vorrei vendicarmi' was one of several highlights for her. Her performance of 'All'alma feudal' was heart wrenching.
Two of the most ravishing pieces in the opera belong to 'Ruggiero'. Vilma Vitols captured every iota of vibrance and life they possess. She sang 'Mi lusinga il dolce affetto' with beauty that can often only be imagined. Superb control and intense projection characterized a stunning rendition of 'Verdi prati'. It's safe to say I might never listen to the piece again without an image of her standing, clear eyed and completely focused, literally sending this magnificently beautiful song directly to the audience.
The other three singers had less to do but made the most of their time on stage. The bit of wildness in Julie Ludwig's voice suited the character of 'Oberto' well. Her performance of 'Barbara!' showed the skills of one who's already strong and only going to get better. The raw power and natural agility is all there and she sings with a level of poise that belies her youth. As 'Melisso' baritone James Levesque had the least opportunity to show his ability in solo numbers. He managed to define the character well nonetheless and when he did get the chance, gave an inspired performance of 'Pensa a chi geme d'amor'. Tenor Cory Knight's third act performance of 'Un moment di contento' was another of the evening's highlights. He ornamented the piece generously, especially in the final verse, and created a defining moment for the character of 'Oronte' in the process.
The small orchestra worked without a conductor to call the signals but their playing grew tighter as the evening progressed. Having a pair of oboes behind just a pair of violins created a difference in the sonic balance that had to be adjusted to. That was easy enough to do. Cellist Laura Jones and harpsichordist Lysiane Boulva combined for some beautiful continuo playing. The only prop used in the staging was Alcina's wand. That didn't matter. The performers and the projected translation made the story was as clear as a bell. Cool and warm contrasts in the lighting defined the opposition between Alcina and the rest of the characters.
Groups like Essential Opera are the lifeblood that keeps things like this alive. It should be hard to imagine now but after a second revival three years after it's premiere in 1735 'Alcina' wasn't performed again until 1928. But for the commitment of the artists, given the brutal state of arts funding, history could easily repeat itself. With minimal resources Erin and Maureen have brought people who are really (and in some cases astonishingly) good at what they do together to show how worth having things like this are largely because they care.
They did a beautiful job of it with this piece.
This performance took place at The Steinmann Mennonite Church just outside of New Hamburg Ontario on Thursday May 31, 2012. - by Brian Hay