Ryedale Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ‘Experience Scheme’
Oriental Club London, 29 July 2016
After two performances during the Ryedale Festival (16 and 18 July), Ryedale Festival Opera brought their production of Handel’s Alcina to the courtyard of the Oriental Club in London. In collaboration with eight young instrumentalists from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s ‘Experience Scheme’, conducted from the harpsichord by Ian Tindale, this was a staged and impressively costumed production, but with minimal props and no sets or scenery, and given an impressively light directorial touch from Nina Brazier.
Like Handel’s operas Orlando and Ariodante, the story is based on a tale from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the epic early 16th century poem of knightly chivalry and fantasy set amidst the wars between Christians and Saracens in the time of Charlemagne. A new English translation provided clarity to the unfolding tale of the goings on in the island realm of the sorceress Alcina, who seduces any hapless knight that happens to land on her island, soon rejecting them and turning them into the trees, plants, animals and rocks that increasingly fill her domain.
The latest knight to fall under her spell is Ruggiero who, with his fiancée, the female warrior Bradamante, are the love-interest heroes of Orlando furioso – and, incidentally, seen as ancestors of the d’Este family of Ferrara, patrons of Orlando furioso’s writer, Ludovico Ariosto. Under Alcina’s spell, Ruggiero has forgotten all about Bradamante, who turns up disguised as her own brother ‘Ricciardo’. The ensuing mayhem, with the inevitable twists and turns, concludes with Alcina’s powers being destroyed, and her transformed former lovers brought back to life.
The simplicity of the staging and direction meant that the music was allowed to speak for itself, portraying the characters in the way that Handel’s music suggests, rather than applying any more contemporary twists by over-imaginative directors. The seven singers were all at very early stages of their careers, and were younger than are heard in most opera performances. Several were still undergraduates. But they all impressed both with their singing and acting ability. It is encouraging that the Rydale Festival Opera gives young singers the chance to gain this experience. As is so often the case, excessive vibrato was an issue with several of them, but as the evening progressed that either became less noticeable to me, or actually became rather less as the singers relaxed. This is a serious issue for singing teachers who so often push young singers into developing a strong vibrato that is not suitable for a vast amount of the operatic repertoire. It is easy to develop, but very hard to subsequently control.
The question of visual appropriateness in opera is a tricky one, but it was good to see that the two sisters, Alcina and Morgana actually looked similar. Choosing female singers to take on so-called ‘trouser’ roles can be a complex issue. In this case, Bradamante spends much of the opera disguised as her brother. It is critical to the plot that she should not be revealed to be female, a task that, on this occasion, did rather stretch belief. It wasn’t much of a surprise, at least to the audience, when the excellent Russian soprano, Maria Ostroukhova, finally revealed her true gender, added a touch of make up to complete the transformation.
The American soprano Cherise Lagasse took the title role, relishing her high-voltage moments of revenge and anger, notably her powerful Ah! Ruggiero crudel / Ombre pallide at end of Act 2. Alcina’s sister, Morgana, was sung by the very impressive Robyn Allegra Parton (pictured). She got the best-known aria of the whole opera, Tornami a vagheggiar. The obligato cello in Morgana’s Act 3 Credete al mio dolore was played by Carlo Rovirosa Guals who also provided sensitive continuo accompaniment.
Countertenor Timothy Morgan sang Ruggiero, his agile voice working well with the part. Joel Williams as Oronte and Jerome Knox as Melisso also made fine contributions. But, as can often be the case, it was one of the most minor roles that a singer really stood out. On this occasion it was soprano Sophie Gallagher (pictured) in the short-trouser role of the boy Oberto. Her clear, unaffected and almost vibrato-free voice was ideal for the part, and indeed, for the whole of the ‘early-music’ repertoire. She also acted the part exceptionally well – it is not an easy one. I just hope that she manages to retain her voice, as she continues to survive her conservatoire studies. The world of early music needs voices like hers. Four additional singers were added for the occasional chorus moments.
The young players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s ‘Experience Scheme’ did well, with only a few tiny unsteady moments from the violins. The oboe and bassoon players couldn’t even fit on the tiny stage, and played hidden from view from behind the other players, but they managed to keep in time well. Ian Tindale’s musical direction was impressive, as was his harpsichord continuo playing. More information about the Experience Scheme can be found here. There are two further performances of Alcina in the Lammermuir Festival and Perth Concert Hall on 14 and 15 September.