Baroque opera seria, a formulaic and convention-bound historical genre long since dead, has experienced a sort of renaissance in recent years in large cities and university music schools where such historical curiosities usually find their audience. In a first for the Brevard Music Center, the Janiec Opera Company launched their obeisance to this rarely heard opera genre with a performance of Handel’s Alcina (1728, with its first performance in 1735 at Covent Garden Theatre, London). In other firsts for this company Patrick Hansen, Associate Director of the Janiec Opera Company, served as both the Director and Conductor of the production; furthermore, the performance was staged in the intimate black box Morrison Playhouse at the Porter Center. The Brevard Festival Orchestra was pared down to a handful of strings and 2 oboes, with Michael Shannon securely anchoring the continuo on a synthesized keyboard.
Opera seria is a soloist’s opera, as single singers alternately advance the plot (in recitative) or reflect on a single emotion in showy arias. Its start-stop, start-stop formulae, coupled with vocal forms in ABA form with lengthy instrumental passages, can easily lead to tedium and a leaden theatrical experience. The company handily surmounted these obstacles with a superb vocabulary of theatrical gestures and emotive responses that evidenced their sure connection to the story and its music. The acting kept us riveted while the instrumental music ran its course. The show’s eastern orientation was underscored with lavish Manchurian garments and Tai chi movements (some displayed before the overture), the latter also serving to compensate for the omitted dance numbers that peppered the original score. With further trimming of some of the final A sections of a few arias, and probably other omissions, the opera with 2 intermissions lasted around three hours. Vincent LeFevre, Scenic and Costume Designer, is to be commended for his unique vision of Alcina’s enchanted island, most imaginatively seen in the four handsome former lovers of Alcina (played by David Miller, Michael Adams, Joe Hager, Marc Koeck) who were transformed into miming, movable trees.
The sophisticated artistry of the cast was most evident in Melinda Whittington in the title role, who was the very embodiment of singing refinement and power, and Emily Brand as her sister Morgana, the show’s beguiling, manipulative coquette with parasol and mincing gait. Garry McLinn was stellar as Oronte (Justin Berkowitz will perform July 29), commander of Alcina’s troops. Christina English as Ruggiero seemed to warm to her role, singing most beautifully the pastoral sarabande “Verdi prati.” Grace Newberry as Bradamante struggled with some of the difficult passagework (notably in the vengeance aria ”Vorrei vendicarmi”) but gained confidence in later scenes. A youthful Elise Jablow as Oberto evidenced the vocal talent of a singer on the rise. Melisso was sung by Andrew Miller (David Tinervia on July 29).
It was clear that this was no academic experiment, but a performance of dedicated artistry and imagination — one for the books, and one to remember.