Händel – Alcina

Opéra National de Paris – Palais Garnier, Monday May 31, 2004

Conductor: John Nelson. Production: Robert Carsen. Alcina: Luba Orgonasova. Ruggiero: Vesselina Kasarova. Morgana: Patrizia Ciofi. Bradamante: Vivica Genaux. Oronte: Toby Spence. Melisso: Luca Pisaroni. Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

On Monday evening, I had a Proustian moment. These days, in a “historically informed” performance of a baroque opera, while you can be fairly certain the orchestra will be excellent, there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll end up wondering how the singers ever made it to the national, nay international stage. We strain to hear voices that would not previously have emerged from the local church choir; Patricia Petitbon is a diva; and Emma Kirkby comes to sound positively Wagnerian. The opening bars of Alcina at the Palais Garnier whisked me back to another era, not so bad after all, when, under the likes of Mackerras or Somary, strings were of steel, harpsichords boomed like Bösendorfers, and those cast to sing Händel were solid troupers like Dame Janet Baker, Della Jones, Valerie Masterson.

On Monday, the tables were, you might say, turned. John Nelson may have been wondering how the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris made it to the pit of such a prestige house for this revival (five years ago, he would have found Christie and Les Arts Florissants there). “Ensemble” was not always the operative word for this conventional chamber orchestra, who had occcasional problems of coordination with the cast and made one or two false starts. But take a second look at the cast list above: the singers were excellent, and while five years ago we were simply bored, there wasn’t a moment’s boredom this time round.

The star of the show was, without a doubt, Patrizia Ciofi. She scored a big hit in Paris a couple of years back as Lucie de Lammermoor opposite Alagna, replacing Natalie Dessay, and has had excellent reviews as a feisty Susanna on Jacobs’ recent recording of Le Nozze. Carsen and Händel both gave her a helping hand: Morgana has all the fun in this production, and the positioning of Tornami a vagheggiar at the end of an act is a gift. Ciofi took it and ran with it, popped in some extra high notes and brought the house down with the curtain.

Orgonasova was a more convincing, moving Alcina than Fleming five years back, the best I’ve heard since Arleen Auger, though she kept her voice reined in and could have let rip more often. Kasarova needs no introduction: an uneven voice across the range (anatomically unlikely as it may sound, she has a chesty bottom and sometimes honks), but this is a role in which the range is very broad; and when she lets rip at the top, the sound is glorious. Genaux is a good foil to Kasarova, a drier, more even sound and phenomenal control at speed. Toby Spence is an elegant tenor and a convincing lover with his shirt off, and Luca Pisaroni at times reminded me – am I nuts? – of the young Ramey. Who is this tall, handsome young bass? I expect we’ll hear more of him.

Robert Carsen’s production seemed no better to me this time than last. The sets are vast, white, panelled walls that slide in or down or forward and sometimes open out to a sunny green garden. Alcina is maîtresse de maison in a green evening gown, Morgana – her sister – is the maid, in a little black dress, white cap and apron and very high heels. The stage is littered with Alcina’s captives in various stages of undress (from chorus members in full tuxedo through various stages of Calvin Klein to dancers in full frontal) who occasionally wake to creep round the stage like zombies. When freed at the end, they stand and dress. It’s a cold, chic, static staging with some annoying modern tics such as fearsome coloratura arias delivered while rolling on the floor, or Alcina’s great centrepiece aria Ah! mio cor sung in darkness to the wall along which she creeps. But the singing was good enough to overcome weaknesses in the orchestra and production, and in these cases, the da capo aria is vindicated in full, and Händel triumphs.

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