There’s not that much Handel on offer in Toronto so it seems really rather odd that Alcina should get two productions within eighteen months. The attraction of the piece for Opera Atelier was obvious. It’s Handel’s only opera that incorporates dance. Why the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory should think it’s a good choice for a student production is less clear. Dance aside, it’s classic Handel; written for an audience who expected great virtuosity from the star singers (in this case Giovanni Carestini and Anna Maria Strada) plus the very latest in analogue SFX. Neither of these could reasonably be expected at Koerner Hall.
Leon Major’s production is minimalist to the max. The dance is gone. So is virtually all movement. The setting is updated to some sort of present and the various transformations at the heart of the drama are barely hinted at. The various characters who have been transformed into the landscape of Alcina’s island are here represented by grey suits with little masks mostly standing in door frames. When Ruggiero is persuaded to take off the ring that causes him to see Alcina’s illusions rather than reality absolutely nothing happens. At the very end when Alcina’s staff, and her power are broken, the suits take off their masks. That’s it! There is, literally and dramatically no magic. For some reason Oberto, the whiny little boy in search of his father (omitted with some reason in the OA production) is here a whiny little girl. Absent a lion to transform into his long lost father, it’s another case of why bother. Of course, Koerner Hall’s limited facilities make it hard to do any of the things that make Alcina fun but they must have known that when they chose the piece.
This is difficult and demanding music. We likely weren’t going to get Carestini like fireworks, and we didn’t. That said there was some solid singing and some promising singing. The standouts, as expected, were Meghan Jamieson as Alcina and Christina Campsall as Ruggiero. The former sang with considerable power and a decent sense of style if sounding a bit tired by the end (everybody did). Campsall (first time I’ve seen her in a pants role) was also rather good. Her body language is curiously reminiscent of Joyce DiDonato and the voice is rich and easy on the ear. She made a pretty good fist of her big showpiece Sta Nell’lrcana despite having to compete with horns that sounded more bronchitic than heroic. The guys; Asitha Tennecoon as Oronte and ringer Keith Lam as Melisso, were solid but they don’t really get the fun music. The same could be said for Joanna Burt’s Oberta and Lillian Brooks Bradamante. Irina Medvedeva’s Morgana was interesting, if flawed. She is a great mover with stage presence and a flair for the dramatic. When the spotlight was on her she was the most interesting thing around. The problems were vocal. She has a really good voice through most of her range but, currently, is throwing out squally top notes that rather spoil the effect. If she can fix that she’s definitely one to watch.
The orchestral playing was curiously uneven and really not quite what I expect from the Conservatory. The intonation of the strings in the initial Sinfonia was horrid and there were occasional lapses throughout. And those horns. Were they playing valveless instruments? (I couldn’t see from my seat). The rest of the time Ivars Taurins just kept them going at a rather monotonous tempo. Maybe that was needed for the benefit of the singers but dramatic it wasn’t.
Overall, this was probably the least satisfactory production I’ve seen from the Glenn Gould School at Koerner. It can be seen again on Friday at 7.30pm.
Photo credit: Nicola Betts