Harteros, Cangemi, Kasarova, Hammarström; Mühlbacher, Bruns, Plachetka; Les Musiciens du Louvre–Grenoble, Minkowski. Production: Noble. Arthaus Musik 108 028 (Blu-ray) or 101 571 (2 DVDs), 205 mins. (opera), 21 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Director Adrian Noble's underlying concept for this Alcina from the Vienna State Opera evokes Strauss's Capriccio: it conjures a performance done at Devonshire House, with the glamorous Duchess playing the titular sorceress and her friends the other roles. (Comely footmen are everywhere.) The handsomely appointed but somewhat static show was taped in 2011, not 2010, as stated in the booklet. Much of the gestural and visual vocabulary seems over-familiar from other stagings, not least the tall, green, artificial grass field in the background, which I have now seen deployed in theaters across Europe.
It's thrilling to hear a big, major voice as Alcina, as New Yorkers know from City Opera mountings starring Carol Vaness (1983) and Christine Goerke (2003). Though less consistently agile than those sopranos, Anja Harteros's rich spinto is generally impressive (except when pitch difficulties intrude, as in "Ah, mio cor," which is sung prone). Imposingly gowned and bewigged, she could be more specific but is clear and provides considerable aural pleasure.
Her Ruggiero, Vesselina Kasarova, offers an incomprehensibly busy and vocally wayward performance that pushes the limits of self-parody. The Bulgarian mezzo, cheered to the echo after most arias here, can be inaccurate textually ("offetto" for "affetto") and often sounds hard-pressed, vibrato-clogged and at points even atonal; her bizarre plastique (arms outstretched as if pointing to friends in the balcony) beggars description.
By contrast, Kristina Hammarström's sympathetically enacted Bradamante proves a model of stylish, beautiful Handelian vocalism: her performance, along with the attractive playing Marc Minkowski elicits from Les Musiciens du Louvre–Grenoble, is the set's main virtue. Looking like an amalgam of Stratas, Cotrubas and Dessay, Veronica Cangemi's winsome Morgana channels cultivated style but must work very hard to get the best out of an audibly aging instrument.
The outstanding male performance is by the poised treble Alois Mühlbacher, who executes Oberto's generally expendable arias with remarkable musical aplomb and pleasant, well-projected tone. Benjamin Bruns makes little of Oronte dramatically. His tenor is not unpleasant, but it is monochromatic and barely up to executing some of the runs; one doesn't mind losing his Act II aria ("È un folle, un vil affetto"). Adam Plachetka (Melisso, puzzlingly in nineteenth-century garb) proves quite decent by the comparatively low standards of today's Baroque basses.
Minkowski's tempos are brisk and pleasing, except when he accommodates his self-indulgent Ruggiero. The consistently fine continuo players are onstage, as befits Noble's concept. The (often scantily clad) men of the Wiener Staatsballett execute Sue Lefton's choreography with assurance, though sometimes the danced episodes do go on.
Blu-ray reveals everything in amazing clarity — including Kasarova's and Cangemi's distressing facial contortions. Translations are O.K., though "Lo giuro" does not mean "I sweat it." The disc includes twenty-one minutes of bonus interviews with the female principals and the director, intercut with rehearsal footage.
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