Opera Vivente's 'Alcina': It's groovy, baby

The Baltimore Sun

Opera Vivente has a tendency to do its own thing, cutting an eclectic swath through repertoire and often presenting productions that come with fresh twists. So it's not surprising that the company should open its 10th year by reconsidering Handel's Alcina through the drug-filtered light and responsibility-challenged lifestyles of the 1960s.

This hippied-up concept of the 1735 work proved mostly effective, as did the performance, Friday night at Opera Vivente's home base, the hall at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon.

Director John Bowen's imaginative version fit neatly enough into the boundaries of the story about an enchantress who attracts men to her island and holds sway over them. Instead of turning them into beasts, boulders or streams through her spells, the updated Alcina exerts her influence chiefly by means of drugs.

This Alcina is overcome, as in the original opera, by the stronger force of love. She loses her latest conquest, Ruggiero, to his determined fiancee, Bradamante. Issues of faithfulness and duty get freshly pointed up, with Alcina's male captives suggesting Vietnam-era deserters. And when members of Alcina's staff espouse a love-as-you-please philosophy, there's an obvious connection to the anything-goes '60s.

I would have welcomed a few more psychedelic trappings for Milagros Ponce de Leon's simple set (a few more props, period), as well as a more pronounced Mod flair to Debra Kim Sivigny's costumes. Still, the flower-power flavor came through, and the eager cast got easily into the mood.

Giving the entire venture a huge lift was soprano Colleen Daly in the title role. She served noticed of genuine star potential, with a warm, agile voice and a refined sense of phrasing. Her acting showed much promise as well.

Monica Reinagel, as Bradamante, proved to be a strong vocal presence, producing a deep tone and easy coloratura. Elspeth Franks, who brought the role of Ruggiero to life vividly, sounded most comfortable and offered the most consistent beauty of line in the eloquent arias of Act 2.

Ah Hong put her bright voice to good use cavorting as the flirtatious, go-go-booted Morgana. She overused some physical gestures, but sure made the most of a gum-chewing scene (the production inserted several bits of humor in between all the serious business).

As Morgana's would-be boyfriend Oronote, Zachary Stains sported a cool headband and a straight, blond wig that he flicked with aplomb. Unfortunately, his singing was weak and strained much of the time.

Christopher Austin, as Ruggiero's former tutor Melisso, did sturdy, vibrant work. The role of Oberto, a boy searching for his Alcina-controlled father, was taken, as it was back in 1735, by a boy soprano. Matthew Spears-Heinel handled the assignment valiantly.

The orchestra of period instruments, led by Joseph Gascho, wasn't quite big or cohesive enough to fill out all the richness of the score, but made some telling contributions along the way.

In the end, the melodic force of Alcina - and Handel was never more inspired than he was in this opera - still worked its own potent magic, a magic that, I suspect, no bong can ever match.

Weekend events

A German Requiem, the deeply beautiful work that Brahms wrote after his mother's death, will get a lot of attention this weekend.

At 7:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, the Annapolis Chorale, led by J. Ernest Green, will present the work on a program with Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. Joining the chorus for the Requiem will be baritone Shouvik Mondle and soprano Fatinah Tilfah. Tickets: 410-280-5640, marylandhall.org.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, conducted by Tom Hall, will perform the Brahms masterwork with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme and baritone Dean Elzinga at 7 p.m. Sunday at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium. Also on the program will be Dave Brubeck's The Commandments, a work based on the composer's experiences during World War II. Tickets: 410-523-7070, balti morechoralarts.org.

Two fine local ensembles of violin, cello and piano will be in action this weekend.

The Monument Piano Trio will play works by Beethoven, Anton Arensky and Bright Sheng at 3 p.m. Saturday at An die Musik (410-385-2638, andiemusik live.com). The Mendelssohn Piano Trio will be presented by Music in the Great Hall at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church (410-813-4255, migh.org).


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