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Opéra National de Bordeaux

The enchanted world of Handel's Alcina has a thrilling authenticity when performed in the intimate splendor of Bordeaux's Grand Théâtre, which opened in 1780 — forty-five years after the Covent Garden premiere of Handel's spell-bound opera. Director David Alden was inspired by the architecture of the theater for this new production, which featured the Bordeaux orchestra conducted by Harry Bicket (seen May 4).

Alden set Alcina's island in a disused theater with fixtures and fittings that recalled the decoration of the Bordeaux auditorium. The conceit here was taken from Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, a film in which unhappily married Mia Farrow repeatedly goes to the cinema to see the same film. The actors eventually step off the screen, allowing real and celluloid worlds to merge. In this production, Ruggiero is bored by his relationship with Bradamante and escapes into singing enchantress Alcina's imaginary world in the abandoned theatre. Reality and Alden's imagination were interwoven to capture the essence of the composer's masterpiece, which is here especially dependent on theatrical sorcery. In Act II, Alcina's laboratory of animal transformations was light-hearted, but it was a pity— after all the entertainment he had provided — that Alden could not produce the sufficiently strong frisson of serenity which the destruction of Alcina's malevolent powers should bring at the end of the opera.

Leading the cast on May 4 was the Alcina of Elza van den Heever, a voice of Wagnerian proportions and the dominant vocal presence of the evening. This was soprano singing of grandeur and thrust, almost too overwhelming in its scale for these intimate surroundings — this was not a reserved Baroque approach to singing, but a full blooded search for the emotional truth of the vocal line.  The statuesque soprano did not always seem to be at home with all that Alden asked of his singers, but she joined in Beate Vollack's busy choreography with panache. 

Mezzo Isabel Leonard, as a Johnny Depp-lookalike Ruggiero, reveled in the physicality of the production and gave a stunning performance, from virtuoso coloratura to an impeccable legato line and vocal homogeneity for the reflective arias. Soprano Anna Christy made the most of her ambitious Morgana, and her tidily sung "Tornami a vagheggiar" was delightfully staged, with feathered choreography reminiscent of a Zizi Jeanmaire number. This was a cast without weakness, from smooth-voiced bass Wojtek Gierlach, as a slightly baffled scientist-cum-therapist Melisso, to soprano Mélody Louledjian as a convincingly boyish and fresh sounding Oberto.  Alek Shrader, who has an energetic and strongly projected tenor, sometimes treated the vocal line a little roughly, but brought tremendous performing energy to his animal transformation as Oronte.  Sonia Prina journeyed from male disguise to enthusiastic bride-to-be with her habitual energy; her richly colored contralto contrasted well with her colleagues, but lost its core in her breakneck coloratura.

Bicket produced sprightly playing from the Bordeaux orchestra, including excellent violin and cello obbligati, proving that it is not necessary to have a specialist Early Music band to provide an evening of stylish Baroque splendor. spacer


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