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George Frideric Handel's Alcina at Lyric Opera; Henry Purcell's King Arthur at Orchestra Hall

Music review, November 19, 1999

These days there's a lot of enthusiasm for authentic, historically informed performances of early music; there's almost none for staging early operas the way they were originally written. I've just seen new productions of a couple of the earliest operas, George Frideric Handel's Alcina and Henry Purcell's King Arthur, and the basic idea behind both was that a modern audience couldn't possibly be expected to tolerate them in their pure, unadulterated form. I always hear people complain about how modern operas are bizarre and unlistenable--but at least they have plots and characters and recognizable human emotions. These older operas have wonderful music, but dramatically they're so ritualized and alien you sometimes feel like you're watching a religious ceremony on Mars.

Alcina, considered strictly as a musical performance, was one of the best things I've ever heard at Lyric Opera. But the creative team behind it--director Robert Carsen and designer Tobias Hoheisel--had to jump through some pretty strange hoops to get it to work onstage. The plot does sound like it might be fun. The title character is a sorceress who disposes of her ex-lovers by transmogrifying them into picturesque details of the local landscape, such as trees and rocks (which is reminiscent of that old joke about the perfect lover being one who screws until midnight and then turns into a pizza). Our hero Ruggiero, her current boyfriend, is in imminent danger of ending up as a hillock or stump when his true love, Bradamante, arrives to rescue him; Bradamante, for reasons that defy summary, has disguised herself as her brother Ricciardo, thus attracting the lust of Alcina's maid Morgana, who is secretly loved by another servant named Oronte, and--well, you get the idea. It ends with the lovers properly shuffled together, the ex-boyfriends deobjectified, and Alcina alone on an island suddenly denuded of scenery.

Or that's the story as it unfolds in the original source, Ariosto's great comic fantasy Orlando furioso, the inexhaustible wonder book of baroque surrealism. The problem is that the opera can barely be bothered to retell the story. The drama is merely a pale decorative pretext for Handel's real interest: the writing of arias--enormous, complicated, showstopping arias. There are more than 20 of them in all (plus one trio) linked only by brief recitatives, and some of them are 10 to 15 minutes long. Even though the Lyric production is abridged, and even though there's considerably less onstage action than in a grammar-school pageant, the whole thing still takes more than four hours to play out.

So what are we looking at the whole time? The Lyric team made a risky choice here that I think paid off brilliantly. They could have used the supernatural subject as an excuse for a special-effects extravaganza, such as the one the Lyric put on last year for Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos--lots of diverting razzle-dazzle and gratuitous flash. Instead they've made the staging as stark as possible. The island is represented as an enormous bare white drawing room, and everyone wears European formal wear circa 1930--the effect is more Cabaret than Handel. The magical atmosphere is suggested only by odd passing intrusions of dream imagery: the enormous sliding doors briefly open to reveal that the room is in the middle of an impossibly lush forest or is part of a mirror vista of identical rooms receding to the horizon. The mob of former lovers doesn't stand in for the prop scenery; they all just sprawl around stupefied in various stages of undress, like revelers the morning after an orgy. Once or twice they rise up and sluggishly shuffle after Alcina in scenes that play like an upmarket version of Night of the Living Dead.

It's a startling take on the original, and the only real problem is that it makes the elusive plot impossible to follow. But is that a big loss? What we get isn't an ornately pretty exercise in baroque abstraction, but a witty and rather sinister vaudeville about love: loosely linked revue sketches about love concealed, admitted, rejected, rediscovered, betrayed, and fulfilled. I don't know if this is what Handel had in mind, and I don't care--it's enough for me that it's plausible. This is exactly what radically subversive postmodern staging is supposed to do and hardly ever succeeds at: coming up with a genuinely fresh idea about an opera that's encrusted with decades or centuries of unthinking convention.

I'm less impressed by another tactic: making the onstage action unceasingly fancy and hot. Over the course of the evening every buried hint of sexuality in the libretto, however absurd or tenuous, is brought to the surface and enacted, usually in the most florid manner imaginable. Since most of the principals are women and a couple of them are disguised as men, there's a lot of gender-bender kissing and fondling. And in case the sapphic transvestism begins to pall, a few variations are included as palate-clearing sorbets--a scene where Alcina takes a pair of naked young fellows to bed and another where Morgana has an intimate moment with a dinner jacket. I've heard the Lyric production has been toned down from the version that premiered in Paris last year, but I can't imagine how, unless it started out as a live sex show.

Not that I'm complaining exactly. Watching superstars like Renee Fleming and Jennifer Larmore feel each other up wasn't the toughest thing I've had to do since I took this job. It can even be justified as part of the overall concept--a sort of hallucinated setting of European decadence between the wars. I just don't buy it as a serious deconstruction of the sexual subtext of the original. Granted, every culture encodes eroticism in peculiar ways, and for all I know, the 18th-century audience found Alcina frothingly hot; I'll even concede that there really are a couple of oblique hints of kinkiness beneath its surface of utter decorum. But I have the feeling that the lurid teasing on display in this production has more to do with the traditions of the midway and the carnival barker. All evening I kept hearing in the back of my mind the Duke in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explaining why he wrote "Ladies and Children Not Admitted" on his theatrical bills: "If that don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansaw!"

Still, it does keep the audience awake for the singing, and the singing is the only reason to stage Alcina in the first place. Nobody wrote better for the voice than Handel, who had an unfaltering ear for where a singer's strengths naturally fall. He was at his best in the higher registers; even though most of the principals in Alcina are sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos, there isn't a single moment of that strident, fingernails-to-blackboard shrillness that can make the average opera so trying. Every aria comes off with exhilarating, commanding ease; after a while you get the feeling Handel is lobbing easy pitches for the New York Yankees to smash out of the park.

There isn't a weak singer in the Lyric cast. Even Jennifer Larmore, whose voice so often seems small and overtaxed, is confident, forceful, and dramatic as Ruggiero. (This casting was more expedient than provocative--the part was originally written for a castrato.) Even more dazzling is Natalie Dessay as Morgana--she's a superb coloratura soprano, and her stage presence is consistently electric. Call me a cultural reactionary, but the scene where she decisively kicks off her shoes and climbs into bed fully dressed with Oronte has a bigger erotic wallop than most of the evening's languid decadence put together.

As for Renee Fleming's Alcina, I never for one moment bought her as a jaded sexual adventurer. No matter how hard she tries she can't shake an air of white-bread suburban blandness. Her long scenes with Ruggiero were curiously sweet, almost innocent, and even in the scene with the two naked stud-muffins she came off as endearingly matronly. But her singing is another matter. There isn't another soprano alive who could top her with this music; the unaffected strength and beauty of her voice was as fine as anything I've ever heard in an opera house. The depth of despair she sounds in Alcina's darker moments is a revelation; only Maria Callas could have been more heartrending. During her amazing extended arias "Ah, mio cor!" and "Ombre pallide" in the second act, I felt the barriers of convention give way to reveal a world of unstylized, unmediated passion behind all the baroque estrangement and postmodern foolery.

I have a few nits to pick with the rest of the production. The set and costumes were fine, but some of the furniture scattered around the stage looked oddly battered; I just don't see Alcina buying secondhand. The small orchestra was passable, as was conductor John Nelson. I probably would have liked him better if I hadn't known that the Paris production had been conducted by the great early-music specialist William Christie; I kept thinking how wonderful it would have been to hear his Handel at the Lyric. But that was only a fleck on one of the most impressive musical events Chicago has heard in years.

As it happens, Christie was across the Loop at Orchestra Hall, where he and his early-music group Les Arts Florissants gave a one-shot semistaged concert performance of Purcell's King Arthur. This was a strange experience, coming right after the big-deal show at the Lyric. There were no sets, no costumes, no big names, and no sex. Just a small group of singers and actors on a bare stage enacting a simply choreographed version of Purcell's story accompanied by Christie's 26-piece period-instrument band. It was a wonderful evening's entertainment, and what was most striking was that it posed as the soul of austere authenticity and yet was even more ruthlessly postmodernized than Alcina.

King Arthur is an example of a hybrid form briefly popular in the 17th century called semiopera, which alternates passages of full-scored opera with long scenes of straight drama. We're lucky it didn't catch on, because even the best surviving examples are misbegotten failures that work neither as opera nor as theater. King Arthur was scored by the best English composer who ever lived and has a text by one of the great English poets, John Dryden, but it's still an ungainly, interminable mess. So Christie and his crew performed an abridged and rewritten text that drastically reduced the running time and replaced almost all of Dryden's dialogue with a rapid-fire spoken narration.

This wasn't a bad approach in theory, since it cut down on the lulls between Purcell's glorious music. But for better or worse, the music was composed for a specific dramatic context, and that context was impossible to figure out. The narration flashed past at warp speed: King Arthur was mixed up with a couple of wizards, and there was a kidnapped girl, and there was a race of supernatural beings in Iceland (I think)--and that's about all I can tell you. I also thought the adapter made a mistake by including so many anachronistic jokes; a couple of them did get laughs, but the overall tone clashed horribly with the surviving snippets of Dryden. There was also the problem of audibility. For all the work done on the acoustics, the hall is still a brutally unforgiving place for small-scale performances; I could catch most of the spoken dialogue from my seat in the upper balcony, but a friend sitting beneath the overhang on the main floor said he couldn't hear a word. The performers seemed blithely unaware of the problem, but they'd have had better luck creating a sense of sonic intimacy in an airplane hangar.

Does any of this matter? Not really, since the music came through--and Christie and his crew were impeccable. King Arthur's score is magical, playful, and radiantly lovely, and listening to it performed this well was a terrific experience. It was also oddly melancholy, because I was aware all over again of just what a calamity for music Purcell's early death was. He was 29 when he wrote King Arthur, and he was dead at 36--and all that time the quality of his work was on a spectacular ascending arc. Mozart died young, but at least he lived long enough to complete The Magic Flute and the Jupiter Symphony. Purcell was snuffed out just when he was on the verge of true mastery.

If you look at King Arthur closely you can see what a patchy and immature score it is. Purcell's youth shows in a lot of passages of unformed musical thought and dully academic execution. There's an absurd aria and chorus early on where a Nordic priest urges his followers into a rite of human sacrifice--the scoring is so bland and decorous he might as well be a butler announcing the first course at a dinner party. But elsewhere Purcell delivers some wonderfully fresh and imaginative music. The high point is in the third act, when for the mysterious race of "Cold People" he conjures up a freakish soundscape of sliding discords like freezing fire. The passage makes the narrow tone palette of baroque music seem infinitely flexible and points toward the stylistic freedom of his later works, the luminous loveliness of The Indian Queen and the glittering splendor of the Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day.

It also makes for a striking comparison with Handel. Purcell's musical world seems so much larger. He lived a generation earlier, and yet he was free of the hidebound formalism that hems in a work like Alcina. The whole of Handel's opera is devoted to the rigorous elaboration of a single, highly artificial musical form, the aria; King Arthur is open to influences from everywhere, from fairy tale to myth, from ballad to anthem to serenade to military march--it seems to reach back into lost vistas of English popular music, all the way into the mistiness of prehistory. So how is it that the earlier work seems so much more complex and musically sophisticated than the later?

In a way, that's the true drama of these early operas, and it's too bad only a few fanatics can appreciate it. Like all great art forms, opera had to evolve its own close-knit rules, its own world of styles and archetypes and conventions; it would take a couple hundred years of this deep inner unfolding before its musical and dramatic language was complex enough to contain the genius of Verdi and Wagner. In Alcina and King Arthur we can see the process beginning--or we might have been able to if they hadn't been so thoroughly repackaged as postmodern stunts. Alcina is an example of the genre's first rudimentary gestures toward formal purity, of the draconian exclusion of everything that didn't fit. King Arthur allows us to glimpse the richness of the musical world that had to be given up for opera to become something new.