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A questionable modern spin on Baroque music: Seattle Opera opens season with Handel’s Alcina

Every time I experience live music, something shifts inside of me. That wasn’t any different for Seattle Opera’s opening night of “Alcina” — composed by Frideric Handel and libretto by Riccardo Broschi — on Oct. 14. As soon as I walked into the performance room I felt like my soul suddenly came back to my body, even before there were any singers on stage.

Picture a turquoise-tiled floor, green-cushioned chairs, a bear-skin rug, and a projection screen displaying videos of what sometimes appears to be a tropical island, and sometimes the Salish Sea. Those were the only things onstage, besides the singers, for this year’s production of Alcina. 

Sophia Bruscato | The Seattle Collegian Seattle Opera’s performance room before the show started

Sung in Italian and premiered in 1735, the story is that of a powerful witch — Alcina — who resides on an island of her own, and, like a siren, puts men under her spell. Once she tires of them, she turns them into rocks, trees, or wild animals. Her island is full of abandoned lovers who’ve been stripped of their human form. When her most recent victim, Ruggiero, is lured onto the island, his fiancée Bradamante follows him, disguised as a man, Ricciardo. Her plan is to lift Alcina’s spell off of Ruggiero by using a magic ring. 

George Frideric Handel is an icon of Baroque Era music. Baroque music is recognizable through its frequent use of the harpsichord, the flute, strings, and elaborate passages in both instrumental melody and voice. The word Baroque comes from Portuguese Barroco, meaning “oddly-shaped pearl,” and it was originally used to describe such art pejoratively, addressing its overly ornate music and architecture. The harpsichord was the predecessor of the piano, and it uses the plucking of strings instead of their hammering, which makes it impossible to produce musical dynamics — a changing between soft and strong, or piano and forte, which is where the piano itself got its name. That also bleeds into the rest of the music, making it monotone in intensity. That doesn’t mean Baroque music can’t be emotional, dramatic, and intense, although it is never my personal first choice to sing or hear. 

Sophia Bruscato | The Seattle Collegian Closeup of stage, taken through the lens of the binoculars I rented

Alcina’s opening night at the Seattle Opera was pretty crowded. “My favorite part is the people-watching,” first-time operagoer Wes Olive said. Indeed, people sported all sorts of fancy gowns, sparkly dresses, elegant suits, intricate hairstyles, and some even wore Halloween costumes. Don’t let this intimidate you — many attendees chose to dress comfortably, in casual jeans and sweaters. 

If you attend, remember to bring five dollars in cash to rent binoculars at the coat-check desk, so you can closely watch the production’s details, costumes, and even see how the singers carry their breath support, or Appoggio — elegantly and nearly invisibly.

Spanish Soprano Vanessa Goikoetxea took the role of Alcina, carrying the sorceress’s stubborn, powerful voice, within her own. Differently from a harpsichord, the human voice is made to fluctuate between different intensities, as we do between our complex emotions. Goikoetxea excels when contrasting Alcina’s thoughts between her pianos and fortes. During the aria “Ah! Mio Cor,” (Oh! My Heart) which takes place during the second act and expresses Alcina’s feelings of betrayal, Goikoetxea’s large voice completely filled the room, striking my heart like an arrow, all the way in the upper back of the auditorium.

Sophia Bruscato | The Seattle Collegian Seattle Opera attendees during intermission

However, the drama and emotional potential of the show were cut short by the stage production, which was a modern, minimalistic take on the opera, stripping it of its visual magic. Despite my disappointment, the story had to be carried by the music itself, independent of elaborate staging or costumes: it was almost as if the audience was sensory deprived, able only to immerse into the story directly through Handel’s music as performed by amazing orchestra and singers. A benefit of minimum-stage production is that it leaves great room for subjectivity in the audience’s eyes.

The show, to me, featured an overall feeling of kinkiness, of a bohemian sexual promiscuity, similar to but not nearly as elegant as the Seattle Opera’s production of La Traviata in May. “The whole vibe says ‘swingers’ lounge,” says NW Theatre, and I agree. The production’s bold choices of having characters undress into their undergarments, showing lots of skin, contributed to the intimate atmosphere, which left me questioning if the act was simply about the sensual pleasure of the island, or if it was symbolic of the characters unveiling themselves from Alcina’s spells — or falling under them. 

Sophia Bruscato | The Seattle Collegian Seattle Opera Lobby

The opera emphasizes gender play by using countertenor — the highest male voice range which was sung in the past by the Castrati and mezzo-sopranos — the second to lowest female range. Both often interpret roles opposite to their gender. The storyline of Bradamante, a woman, disguised as Ricciardo, the man with whom Morgana (Alcina’s sister) falls in love without knowing his true identity.

Sophia Bruscato | The Seattle Collegian Costumes displayed at Seattle Opera’s lobby, from Tosca on the left, and Carmen on the right

This production was also the first time I witnessed real fire during a live performance. Towards the end of the second act, two characters lit and gathered around a small fire contained in a metal bowl. In this same scene, one of the characters uses red lipstick to draw lines on his arms while singing a dramatic aria, all while Alcina lies behind a cluster of chairs in the back of the stage. It is true I didn’t do my homework on Alcina before attending the show, which made the plot more difficult to interpret, but I wonder if I would have been just as intrigued by these choices had I done my research earlier. 

A trademark of revolutionary art is its appalling impact on audiences. However, in the words of Peter Olive, “some things are better left unfucked with,” and in this case, I agree.

Alcina runs from Oct. 14 through the 28.

Despite conflicting opinions on this production, I left the theater inspired, as if I had fallen in love for the first time all over again. Live music performances are always a reminder of the greater community we belong to, and of our greatest nature — art, which remains alive through and within every one of us. 

Author

Content Editor at Seattle Collegian

Sophia is an internationally published author with her book Primeira Pessoa, as well as a young classical singer. Born and raised in Brazil, music, writing, and Astronomy are her greatest passions. She believes the greatest role of a writer is to bring forth the truth, the honesty, and the humanity that echoes within each one of us. Journalism, while Art, is for her a portrait of the fraternity of the Earth. At the moment, she works for both The Seattle Collegian and the M. Rosetta Hunter Art Gallery, while completing her AA degree with a focus on Anthropology & English.

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