Alcina: Mystery Pageant

Local Arts Reviews

Alcina: Mystery Pageant

McCullough Theatre,

through March 5

Running Time: 3 hrs

Like the star around which the lesser bodies of a solar system must circle or perhaps the spider at the center of the vast, intricate web she has just spun, this woman occupies the center of the stage. Her voluminous gown -- a deep indigo, spangled with golden symbols of celestial bodies -- radiates from her to every corner of the stage, where kneeling figures in golden masks grip the edges of the garment and languidly pull on them, causing the great swath of fabric to billow. In the midst of this gently rolling midnight sea, the woman herself maintains the stillness of a pillar, with a rigid posture that suggests regal bearing. Further intimating a sense of royalty are the numerous egg-sized gems studding the almost monstrous black hive of hair crowning her frosty visage -- an image which also brings back thoughts of the spider, its dark head profuse with ruby-colored eyes. She is a curious figure, extravagant and strange to our eyes, and yet strangely compelling in her splendor and stateliness.

This is Alcina, the title character in George Frideric Handel's opera, as we first see her in this UT Opera Theatre production, and the odd mixture of feelings she elicits could stand for the entire work -- at least where a modern American audience is concerned. After all, we just pushed a slapstick comedy about hit men into the No. 1 spot on the box office charts for the second week running. What else can this Baroque opera be to us but an alien form of entertainment? It has no f-words, no knees in the groin, no gratuitous nudity (or any other kind, for that matter). It has no jump cuts, no montages, no MTV soundtrack. It does have songs, but Handel's arias for Alcina are the tightly structured, highly ornamented vocal showpieces of the 18th century, in which the singer's emotions are almost obscured in the cloudburst of notes. It does have a story -- a woman named Bradamante disguises herself as a man and ventures to the isle of the sorceress Alcina to free her betrothed, Ruggiero, from the love spell placed on him by Alcina -- but the synopsis makes it sound more action-packed and dynamic than its playing out proves it to be. The scenes typically consist of a brief dialogue setting up the song, typically a solo, which is delivered with a minimum of movement. The drama is subdued, the staging simple, albeit lushly appointed and eye-catching. Even by the standards of opera, at least those with which we're most familiar today, this is an oddity -- so refined, so formal, so ornate, so deliberate.

And yet, as strange as that formality and ornamentation make it seem to us now, it also contributes to Alcina's strange allure. The rigidity of the structures, both musical and visual, also encourages excessive embroidery of the material, leading to luxuriant stage pictures and musical soundscapes. My ear for Baroque work is hardly the most developed, but it was repeatedly seduced by the beauty of Handel's melodic passages, the rush of notes ascending upward gloriously. Daniel Johnson and the Texas Early Music Project Baroque Orchestra imbue the music with spirit and class, and the singers relish the material, their voices bobbing and bouncing and ever so lightly riding it into the heavens. Catherine Moran contributes a visually mesmerizing array of costumes, some lavishly theatrical in the manner of Alcina's outfit noted above, some simply captivating in style and texture, such as the soldier's uniform worn by Bradamante in her disguise, a stylish evocation of period military wear with a plush powder-blue jacket that begged to be stroked. Captured under Coertney Chadick's sensitive lighting, these outfits become chameleon-like, shifting hues, such as the flame-colored costume worn by Rema Garrison's Morgana, which burns a bold yellow, then a smoldering orange.

Director Robert DeSimone makes the most of these production values, using them to set striking compositions about the stage like a jeweler setting gems, so that even though the movement is minimal by modern standards, the images are the kind you can drink in for hours. The effect is rather like a pageant: grand, ceremonial, decorative, dignified, resplendent. It is not a style that comes naturally to us, and, to be sure, that is evident in several performances: a bit of awkwardness here, a little stiffness there. But when the performers get it -- as when Rema Garrison's coquettish Morgana flits about the stage flirting with the disguised Bradamante; when Arikka Gregory's elegant Bradamante pleads for her love to return to her; when Amy Spencer's Ruggiero, believing his fate sealed, sings wistfully of his lost love; when Jennifer Needham's Alcina, enraged by her loss of Ruggiero, vows revenge -- the piece dissolves the gap between Handel's time and ours, and pulls us into its strange and extravagant world. Alcina isn't The Whole Nine Yards, but the thing it is can still carry us away to some mysterious island, some magic place.

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