IU opera to stage a ‘treasure’ with Handel’s ‘Alcina’
By Peter Jacobi
Asked what feelings we should go away with when the Musical Arts Center curtain closes at the end of Handel’s opera “Álcina,” stage director Chas Rader-Shieber says: “You should feel more human than when you came in.”
That, he explains, goes for “any kind of theater, any sort of art offered an audience, and it should be especially easy after ‘Alcina,’” which he insists is “an amazing, funny, charming opera, part drama, part comedy, part romance, all kinds of theater in a single evening.”
Rader-Shieber comes to Bloomington as guest stage director. He spends much of his time at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where, over the years, he’s directed some 16 opera productions. Seventeenth and 18th century operas seem to have become a specialty for him, and they include previous productions of Handel operas including, just to list a few, “Alcina” at Curtis and Chautauqua, “Giulio Cesare” in Pittsburgh and Minnesota, “Orlando” at the New York City Opera, “Tamerlano” in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, and “Tolomeo” at the Glimmerglass Opera.
“What a fantastic opportunity for people in Bloomington it is,” says Rader-Shieber, “to experience a Handel opera live. Though his operas are now in an upswing of productions, they are still somewhat rare, and such treasures he left behind, so many of them worthy of greater attention. ‘Alcina’ certainly is a treasure,” a “treasure” to be staged the next two Fridays and Saturdays. As such, it marks the first time that IU Opera Theater scheduled this Handel work.
Jacobs School faculty conductor Arthur Fagen, in charge of “Alcina’s” musical elements, labels the opera as “very special Handel, really, basically a flood of arias, the next one more beautiful than the last. I happen to like the piece very much and have since the first time I conducted it, in Palermo 1985. It was my Italian debut.”
Another visitor, Robert Perdziola, has created the physical production, the sets and costumes. For him, this visit is a return. He was here two years ago for Handel’s “Xerxes.” “At the time, I expressed my desire to return,” says Perdziola, “and I find myself enjoying ‘Alcina’ more than I did ‘Xerxes.’ Of course, back then, my father was dying, and I probably wasn’t as fully wrapped in the project. But I’ve been really drawn in by ‘Alcina,’ the character herself, a sorceress, compulsive, temperamental. As her world comes apart, the audience becomes increasingly aware that this is theater, that her obsession with love is filled with illusion, nothing else. The stage must reveal that conceit and its unraveling.”
According to the story, the sorceress Alcina co-rules an island with her sister Morgana. Both are evil creatures. Alcina has made it a tradition to seduce the knights who come to the island because she’s lured them there. Once they arrive, she uses them, tires of them, rejects them, and finally transforms them into inanimate objects and animals, from rocks to lions. Along comes the knight Ruggiero who, at first falls for Alcina, in the process forgetting that he’s betrothed to Bradamante. Later, he remembers the betrothal and, when he does, rejects Alcina. She is furious and also desperate to retain her magical powers. These, too, she loses, along with the island’s magic. The sisters disappear as transformed knights are returned to their former selves. Illusion has given way to reality to bring the opera to a happy close.
Add disguises to the above, and you have a plot of twists and turns. “Visually,” says designer Perdziola, “little by little, we reveal what’s behind Alcina’s domain, the illusion that has been her life. Things begin to deteriorate. The stage picture reflects what’s happening to Alcina, what is transpiring to undo the harm she caused.”
All three gentlemen praise the singers. “It’s always good to work with young performers,” says Perziola. “They’re open for guidance and flexible. Certainly, these at IU are, and they’re amazingly talented.”
“So far, so good,” says director Rader-Shieber. “It’s been a joy. They are talented people. Of course, I try not to anticipate problems, and the singers here haven’t given me any. It all starts with me. I need to love the opera I’ve been asked to do. And I love ‘Alcina.’ With that attitude, I go into rehearsals, hoping for the best. Then, I tell the singers of my concept, in this case a magic opera that, like magic itself, deals in illusion. They need to know what’s on my mind so they can begin to accept my approach, perhaps question it, but also take on the specified personality of their character. The quicker they do that, the easier we can move through rehearsals because they’re ready to enter the world of the story.”
Maestro Fagen must concern himself with singers and with an orchestra, more specifically the IU Chamber Orchestra. “We’re not using period instruments,” he explains, “but there are critical aspects of historic performance that must be dealt with: the cadenzas, the holding back on vibrato, articulation and phrasing, and declamation that must be clear. There are colors in the vocal writing and in the instrumental. There is ornamentation, too. And there are matters of interpretation. Handel did not mark his scores with the precision, say, of Stravinsky. He has left many decisions to us, as performers. But isn’t that an important part of what interests us as musicians, of why we want to tackle a work. The Chamber Orchestra is in good, flexible shape. The casts are really very good. There are a few standouts, but the overall level pleases me.”
“Alcina” was one of Handel’s most popular operas during his lifetime, so favored because of the music’s emotional range and the multiple arias he wrote to fill the evening. It remains so for modern audiences. We get an opportunity to try it out. I think that’s fortunate.
© Herald Times 2015