Alcina - Barbican, 4 December 2010
This was billed as a concert performance of Handel's Alcina, but it wasn't one of those nose-in-book affairs. With the musicians and most of the cast fresh from a fully-staged version at Vienna's Staatsoper (the first baroque opera there in 40 years!), the awkwardly wide Barbican stage was put to good use for once. Singers sang to each other not their scores, toyed with improbable props (a sheet of paper for an urn....please), and faux 18th century settees were distributed on either side of an orchestra twice the size of Handel's. But then Marc Minkowski's approach to period performance has never been the emaciated doctrinaire type. Vibrato was flaunted, instrumental soloists stepped up front to do their bit.
I'd been looking forward to Anja Harteros in the title role, especially after the rave reviews she'd received in Vienna. Despite the Barbican website not giving a sniff of any change, it turned out she was to be replaced by Inga Kalna, a former Hamburg Opera stalwart who's tackled everything from Liu to Lucia. Her sound is a bit on the lush, weighty side for Alcina, but then the same could be said of Harteros. Her grande dame demeanour though was perfect for the imperious sorceress. A few pinched top notes aside, she settled into a remarkably fine performance.
Further compensation for the loss of Harteros came in the form of the shovel-chinned Queen of Pants, Vesselina Kasarova, as Alcina's bewitched lover Ruggiero. Few singers divide opinion like la Kasarova. But most of the Barbican audience joined opera lovers in Vienna, Zurich and Munich (where she is a cult star) in overlooking the register breaks and breathy coloratura and sacrificing themselves to the remarkable intensity of her performance. A show which started off a little saggy and uncertain suddenly tautened the minute she came on stage.
The other remarkable performance came in the role of the boy Oberto, usually a soprano, but here taken by an actual boy. Shintaro Nakajima of the Vienna Boys Choir has the sweetest and firmest of voices coupled with the frighteningly premature assurance of a Dakota Fanning.
The other singers were solid but not in quite the same league. Veronica Cangemi sang fussily and sometimes inaudibly as the infatuated Morgana. I wondered if she was a little under the weather - I've heard much better from her in the past. Romina Basso wasn't in the Vienna production, and though she sang Bradamante with enthusiasm, her score impeded her full involvement. Handel reserved his best tunes for the ladies, but Benjamin Bruns and Luca Tittoto did well as Oronte and Melisso without making a huge impression.