Ever since I saw an incredible production of Handel’s Alcina at the San Francisco Opera about a dozen years ago, it has been one of my very favorite operas. I listen to the CDs all the time (I have the historically inaccurate but wonderful Joan Sutherland recording), and I try to catch up with live versions whenever I can. When I saw that Carnegie Hall was presenting a concert version last Sunday, I couldn’t resist, though I figured it would just be a faint reminder of what I loved about the full-fledged opera.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. This Carnegie performance of Alcina, put on by Harry Bicket’s English Concert and an enviable roster of great soloists, has now upstaged the marvelous San Francisco opera performance in my greatest-hits-ever list. It’s not just that the musicians were excellent and the acoustics better than anything I’ve ever heard in an opera house. It’s not just that Bicket and his soloists wisely decided to do a “semi-staged” version, in which the singers acted out their roles with facial expressions and evocative gestures, even as they wore concert clothes and carried scores. It’s that, moment by moment, this was the most emotionally gripping, powerfully dramatic version of the opera I’ve ever seen. It turns out that Handel doesn’t need sets or even costumes to come across; he just needs highly intelligent, remarkably skilled performers.
Top of the list was Joyce DiDonato as Alcina herself. I didn’t recall this sorceress role as being so much the center of the opera that bore her name, but DiDonato certainly made it that. She has always had a beautiful voice, but in this case her singing was magical: she captured every one of us in the audience, just as a sorceress should, so that in the silences between her quiet notes you could actually hear nothing—not a pin dropping, not a program rustling, not a cough or a sneeze or even a deep breath. We knew we were hearing something the like of which we would never hear again, and we were suitably enchanted. (It didn’t hurt that DiDonato was wearing a girlishly punk hairstyle and a Maleficent-style dress, so that she seemed both over-the-top and completely unpretentious. But whatever she was wearing, we would have been her rapt slaves.)
Great as she was, though, she couldn’t have done it alone. The opera worked because every one of her supporting cast members brought her or his full self to the role. Alice Coote was a terrific Ruggiero (as she had been in my original San Francisco experience), Christine Rice a charming Bradamante/Ricciardo, Anna Christy and Ben Johnson a hilariously moving Morgana and Oronte, Wojtek Gierlach a great, deepvoiced Melisso, and Anna Devin an enchantingly ingenuous Oberto. The band played beautifully, too, especially the duo of horns, the solo cello, and the solo violin.
Yet even all these stellar contributions, taken separately, could not have added up to what I saw on Sunday, had there not been some special chemistry involved. Call it DiDonato+Bicket+ Carnegie+Handel. Call it whatever you like: the hallucinatory drug, perhaps, that is Handel at his best. The young woman who had the seat next to me, a jazz pianist who knew nothing about opera, commented on how involving she found it. Was this what opera was like? ”Hardly ever,” I told her. “This is as good as it gets.”