April 20th, 2009

University Opera: Alcina

Friday night the 17th, we hopped in the car after work and set out for Madison to see the University Opera's production of Handel's "Alcina." It was good driving everywhere except downtown Madison, and we made it to Music Hall with time to spare.

The libretto 's author is unknown, but the plot is taken (like those of the Handel operas Orlando and Ariodante ) from Ludovico Ariosto 's Orlando furioso . Alcina is a Circe-like character, who rules a magic island. She has enchanted, used and cast aside many men, whom she has since turned into beasts, trees, or stones on the island. Her most recent conquest is the knight Ruggerio, who has forgotten his heroic aspirations under her sway. Enter his fiancé, Bradamante, disguised a man for safety, accompanied by Ruggerio's old tutor, Melisso, who are searching for him. They are met by Alcina's younger sister, Morgana, who becomes infatuated with the handsome "Ricciardo," the name Bradamante is using.
Plot complications ensue as Bradamante and Melisso attempt to bring Ruggiero to his senses without result; Alcina's general, Oronte, who desires Morgana, makes trouble by telling Ruggiero that Alcina is now in love with "Ricciardo"; Alcina promises Ruggiero she will turn Ricciardo into a beast in order to prove she loves only him; and Morgana becomes convinced that Ricciardo loves her.
In the second act, Melisso restores Ruggiero's memory with a magic ring, and they plot together for Ruggerio to regain his armor and weapons by claiming he wants to go hunting, whereupon they will escape. Ruggiero has one of the most lovely arias of the opera at this point, "Verdi prati," ("Green meadows,") in which he bids farewell to the beautiful illusion his life with Alcina has been. Bradamante enters and reveals her true identity, but Ruggerio cannot believe it and thinks this is another of Alcina's tricks. Alcina meets with Ruggerio prepared to transform Ricciardo, but Ruggerio thinks fast and tells Alcina that he has become convinced of her love and no longer needs proof.
Oronte brings the tale of Ruggerio's planned escape to Alcina and Morgana, but, because she genuinely loves Ruggerio, her powers will no longer work on him; she calls spirits to work her magic, but they do not come.
In act three, the escapees discover that despite the failure of Alcina's spells, she has still roused her army and her collection of monsters against them. Ruggerio sings a heroic song and goes off to battle. Bradamante declares that she will not leave until all Alcina's spells have been broken.
Oronte brings the news to Alcina that her forces are defeated; she sings a despairing aria. Ruggerio, Bradamante, Melisso and others enter: Ruggerio destroys the artifact that contains Alcina's magic and she dies. The heroes depart victorious as the enchanted victims regain their proper forms.
The University Opera did an excellent job with this piece. The setting was technically the private island of a 1950's movie goddess, a conceit that was fairly easily forgettable as you got into the story. The modern costuming did make for some witty references however. Alcina's blood-red velvet gown was perfect for her "vamp" role. Bradmante's male disguise incorporated a letter jacket, Melisso wore a professorial tweed sport coat, and Morgana was a classic fifties brat "kid sister" in boat neck sweater, rolled up jeans, and sneakers. Oronte was dressed as and Erich von Stroheim character, with shaven head, ascot, riding breeches, boots, and crop. Ruggerio had a young Pat Boone thing going with gabardine suit, open shirt, and matching hair style.
The collection of set pieces were generally used in a clever manner to support the mood of the scenes, but the ritual of the sceneshifters (Alcina's tech crew) moving the parts on, carefully wedging the rolling carts, and then moving them off again got a bit tedious by the end. Some parts made no sense: a roast boar's head, complete with apple in mouth, sat on its wreathed platter down right all show for no discernable reason. I didn't in principle mind the use of a stuffed lion to represent Oberto's enchanted father, but the toy used was hardly recognizable at any distance as a stuffed animal, let alone a lion.
Stage direction and physical acting was OK, but uneven, with some parts very good. Alcina (Saira Frank) had a good repertoire of melodrama villainess gestures. Bradamante (Kassy Coleman) had a good mannish walk but was a bit stiff in the shoulders. Oronte (Jesse Hoffmeister) had good poses for his character, but didn't quite have the boot swagger down. One of the nice running bits centered around Alcina's stole. She wears a brightly colored silk shawl through much of the performance, which, when unfurled, proved to have a Gorgon's face on it, which also shows up as a sculpted head she uses as an altar. When calling the spirits, she redrapes the shawl so that the Gorgon's face glares out from her chest, as sign that she is invoking her power as a priestess and sorceress. In her abject times, she draws the shawl over her head in mourning, and loses it entirely in her final struggle with Ruggiero. Then, after everyone else has left Alcina's body on the stage, Morgana enters, picks up the fallen mantle, and wraps herself in it as the light dies.
But, one comes to Opera primarily for the singing, and in this, we were very pleased. Saira Frank has a large role as Alcina, and rose to the challenge admirably, singing with confidence, power, and beautiful tone. Jamie Van Eyck did excellently well with the counter-tenor part of Ruggerio. Other stand-outs were Caitlin Cisler as Morgana, Kassy Coleman as Bradamante, and Anna Slate as the boy Oberto, particularly in her third-act showdown with Alcina ("Barbarous woman!"). The rest of the cast and chorus sang well, and there were no failures or omissions that we noted. The UW Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of James Smith, was just fine, supported the singers perfectly, and was never too loud.
It was a long drive over and a late night getting back, but we considered it well worth the trip.

Cream City Chorus: Whirled Music

Last season, the Chorus experimented with a form they are calling
"choral theatre," with the very serious and moving piece "Safe Harbor:
Signs of Compassion." This year, they came up with "something completely
different." (And the "Monty Python" reference is not off base.)

What can you say about a concert that included "The William Tell
Overture" (yes, a choral version--); Burt Bacharach's "What the World
Needs Now," and "The Witch Doctor"? Well, you'd probably say it was a
bit weird, and so it was, but pleasantly so.

The plot concerns a reclusive composer, (J. Rubin Piirainen) who both
works and orders in everything he needs via his computer. His work and
lifestyle both come to a halt when his system is corrupted by a virus
called "Spin" which starts by scrambling the icons on this desktop, but
then contaminates all his music files with "Mary had a little lamb," no
matter what the style. (Imagine Gregorian chant "Maria tenet parva
agnus" (or words to that effect--).)

The Composer calls on his friend, The Geek (Joel Kopischke), who "rides
to the rescue" (William Tell, here). After a struggle and numerous
musical interludes, narrated by Timothy Ruf in a meter of Dr. Seuss, the
Geek realizes that his friend is in danger of becoming housebound, and
makes excuses to extend the job until he can drag the Composer out to
dinner and meet some people. Composer discovers that it's nice out
there, and ends by moving his composing operation to the park via a new

I have to say that the plot, such as it was, wasn't very well
constructed and lacked any kind of punch line. It served as a device to
hang a lot of musical jokes and other bits of playfully recontexed music
(the "whirled music" of the title) upon. The chorus members provided the
musical effects, most of the songs, backups, visual aids, and everything
necessary to move things along, while obviously having a lot of fun with
the whole thing. We, and the rest of the audience had fun, too.

The "choral theater" idea as a form is well worth pursuing, but as with
any form in early stages of its evolution, it needs work.