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opera review

Irina Medvedeva as Morgana in Alcina.Nicola Betts

Teaching students an art, especially an art as ancient and complex as classical music, is a matter of shaping and bending young spirits – bending but never breaking them. It is the combination of the freshness of youth mixed with the refinement of culture. The merger doesn't always work. Sometimes the past is presented as dogma, and dies a calcified death. Sometimes the present moment overwhelms, and energy supplants wisdom.

But when the past and present come together organically in the learning experience, magic can happen. Witness the Royal Conservatory of Music's current production of Handel's Alcina. Although not a perfect evening, the show is so much more than a "student" production. It is a chance to see the shaping and moulding of potential first-rate talent up-close, and at times was quite exhilarating.

What made this production of Alcina special, apart from the gifted individuals on stage and in the pit, were the two professionals making it happen. Conductor Ivars Taurins normally stands in front of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, or orchestras such as the Calgary Philharmonic. Yet the sounds, energy and intelligence he coaxed out of his student band were remarkable. (Actually, almost all the musicians and singers in Alcina are members of the Conservatory's Glenn Gould School, a professional training facility, so "student" is somewhat misleading.) I'm guessing many of the members of the Alcina orchestra were dealing with baroque stylistic features – quick tempos, less vibrato, sharp, finely contoured phrasing – for the first time, but you wouldn't have known it. Taurins pushed his group into an interpretation of a superb Handel score that could rank with any professional ensemble.

On stage, the cast was in the hands of veteran opera director Leon Major, now 83. Major and his cast had to deal with some substantial obstacles, as the opera was presented in Koerner Hall, a concert stage without a proscenium arch, or wings, or flies, or any of the other standard features of a theatrical space. Major compensated by having his entire cast on stage at all times, creating a series of tableaux with a simple set and imaginative lighting, that allowed each of his singer/actors to claim centre stage at one point or another. Acting is something that opera singers, at every level, are still coming to grips with, and Major's cast varied in their ability to physically define, as well as vocally define, their roles.

Where Major's and Taurins's work came together was in the shaping of the various extraordinary arias that Handel wrote for this opera – a muddled story about a sorceress, Alcina, who turns her former lovers to animals or plants, and a heroine, dressed as a man, who frees her smitten lover from the sorceress's spell, and her former lovers as well. (Don't ask.) But in the midst of this shaky plot, each of the opera's main performers created very special moments, when true art sparked off of them like an electrical charge, galvanizing the audience.

Irina Medvedeva was a charming, sexy and spirited Morgana, Alcina's sister, who stopped the show more than once with her flexible, supple, yet powerful soprano. Christina Campsall's gorgeous mezzo voice gave the needed gravitas to her portrayal of Ruggiero, the lover initially in Alcina's spell, but who eventually breaks free of her power. Lillian Brooks was powerful as Bradamante, Ruggiero's lover, who seeks him out in Alcina's kingdom. Asitha Tennekoon was convincing and sang with a focused tenor as Oronte, Alcina's bodyguard, and Morgana's lover. Joanna Burt was pleading and sorrowful as Oberta, looking for the father who Alcina has transformed into a wild beast. Keith Lam, not from the Gould School, did a fine job as Melisso, Bradamente's travelling companion.

All the cast members had their fine moments in Alcina, so it may be a bit unfair to single one out. But if you had to, it would be Meghan Jamieson, in the title role. Jamieson has a powerful, almost too powerful soprano, helpful for Alcina's wild careenings from love to jealousy to revenge to disdain. But when Jamieson dialled it back a notch, in the heartbreaking aria which ended the first half of Alcina, with subtle, sensitive accompaniment from Taurins's orchestra, it was as though for a second you could see into her future as an artist, and a glorious future it was.

Opera Atelier presented Alcina a couple of seasons ago, and it was a lovely production, one that probably held together a bit more firmly than this one. But for sheer enjoyment and excitement, the excitement of seeing things grow right before your eyes and ears, the Royal Conservatory's Alcina was a clear winner.

Handel's Alcina will be presented again on March 18 at 7:30 p.m. (

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