The scrim representing a stylized desert rises and we are presented with a bare stage, the real back wall of the Elgin Theatre providing a backdrop. A dramatic spotlight is trained on a single dancer, as other performers, unassumingly, go through their warm-ups.
A modern production at CanStage or Soulpepper? No, this is the opening of Opera Atelier's Alcina, written in 1735 by George Frederick Handel, the first Handel opera the baroque company has attempted in its 29 years. And although baroque order is soon restored to this "authentic" Opera Atelier production, that opening (the show closes on the same bare stage) reveals a complex relationship between past and present that director Marshall Pynkoski has woven throughout this production. As well as modern bits of stagecraft, Pynkoski and designer Gerard Gauci have also cleverly incorporated video projections into this Alcina, an up-to-date version of the magic lantern shows that proliferated in 18th-century theatres.
Witnessing an 18th-century opera in a version of its original state is like overhearing a discussion about astronomy with people who still believe the sun revolves around the Earth. We just see things differently now. And in opera, it's the concept of dramatic time that has changed beyond reckoning since opera seria ruled the world. We expect preparation, conflict, resolution in our dramatic timelines. Handel and his contemporaries, on the other hand, present a situation, explore the emotional intensity of that situation, and then move on to the next. It robs us of our contemporary expectation of dramatic time, but it provides a composer with dozens of opportunities to plumb emotional depths without worrying too much about plot, character development, or any other modern operatic convention.
And the score Handel wrote for Alcina is perfectly magical (the story concerns a sorceress who has imprisoned the souls of her previous lovers and who loses her powers when she truly falls in love). Number after number, melody upon melody, tumble after one another in truly awe-inspiring variety. The music of Alcina is preposterously engaging.
And it's just on this musical level where I thought Opera Atelier's Alcina faltered. To my ear, none of the singers, save one, gave completely convincing performances. They all had moments of power and beauty, but this is a score that demands excellence at a high level . That one exception was Mireille Asselin as Morgana, who was seductive, charming and dramatically powerful. Her counterpart, Kresimir Spicer, as Oronte, almost matched her for comic and dramatic impact.
But the opera's principals, despite fine moments each, needed to inhabit Handel's musical world with greater presence. Wallis Giunta had some fine comic moments as Bradamante, the girl disguised as her brother seeking her lover (don't ask), but lacked some power in her solo arias. Olivier Laquerre has a limited role as Melisso, Bradamante's companion, which he acquits well. But Allyson McHardy, as Bradamante's love, Ruggiero, moved in and out of focus throughout the evening. Sometimes halting, sometimes powerful, we needed more consistency from her. But when she was good, she was superb, as when she ended the first half of the opera, just before intermission, with 10 minutes of the most sublime performance I've heard from anyone in many years. Meghan Lindsay's Alcina was well sung, but lacked a complete emotional range, which we need from this lead character. As the opera progresses, we actually start to sympathize with this sorceress, as she succumbs to love's true passion. Lindsay needed to overwhelm us with her arias at this point in the opera. The Tafelmusik orchestra, under David Fallis, as always, provided wonderful accompaniment all night.
Despite its flaws, this is still a production worth seeing. The basic idea of Opera Atelier productions, of meshing a spirit of revival with a spirit of adventure, is very compelling, and this Alcina is no exception. The use of video in counterpoint to the live action is stunning at times, the music is beautiful and one is taken on a journey during the evening – as much as anyone can ask at the theatre.