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23 February, 2007

Alcina at the Sydney Opera House. Flawed fantasy and (seemingly) forever

Sydney Opera House

Friday 23rd February 2007, 7pm

AlcinaRachelle Durkin
RuggierSarah Castle
BradamanteSally-Anne Russell
MorganaNatalie Jones
OronteHenry Choo
ObertoHye Seoung Kwon
MelissoRichard Alexander
ConductorRichard Hickox
DirectorJustin Way
DesignersAndrew Hays, Kimm Kovac

Dear Colleagues,

This performance was marred by the management breaking some cardinal rules of the theatre. The first rule is to get bums on seats which was successful. However, many of those bums, including mine, were no longer there by the third act which has some of the most enchanting moments in this long work. One reason was the overall length. Apologies therefore, as these disappointments played on my tolerance to stay for the third and final act.

The last time that Alcina was performed here it opened amazingly with not one or two, but half a dozen or more of the greatest talents the country has ever produced (Helpmann, Sutherland, Elkins, Elms, Bonynge, McGregor, Wegner, Pascoe, Neidhardt, etc). The production was lavish and over-the-top, just like this new clever presentation by Justin Way and his team. Yet the company ignored lessons from last time.

From my point of view, the opera was a dismal failure, partly due to the unwillingness of Maestro Hickox to compromise on his obsession with perceived completeness. Alcina is not biblical, nor is it Wagner. Bonynge is a man of the theatre, just like Handel before him. He had no problem cutting ruthlessly to make the evening better for audience and performers alike. It was still a long night and I have the fondest memories of the performances which should have been telecast (there may be an extant recording somewhere).

Apart from Helpmann's glorious production, my main undying memory of Alcina was the show-stopping aria 'Tornami a vaghegiar' with Joan Sutherland. Correctly known as Morgana's aria, it was purloined by her sister, Queen Alcina, showing just why Sutherland was dubbed La Stupenda by her Italian fans. I understand that even in Handel's day such aria swapping was not unknown. To hear this sung by Natalie Jones and not Rachelle Durkin was one of the most disappointing moments in my opera going career which started around 1960 at Rockdale Town Hall. Not that I have any problem with Natalie Jones who I have praised in the past. She sang well. But this is like a mad scene or Queen of Night aria and no sensible impresario would ask the second coloratura soprano to do either of these. Ms Durkin would have been more appropriate for the fiendishly difficult tessitura and dramatic needs of this long piece. Instead we were spoon fed a museum piece.

The production is one of the most elaborate I have seen. It involved a fantasy baroque gilded patina proscenium containing many inlaid figures and motifs almost as varied as Titus's column in Rome. From removable scenery apertures chorus faces and limbs appeared at certain times, some singing, some carrying swinging lights. On the right, a large pond cleverly ran to an imaginary stream which, at the footlights, dipped and dripped into an imaginary earth fissure illuminated all evening evoking a moist subterranean underworld.

Close inspection revealed that huge angled mirrors formed the stage depth. These reflected events on a lowered rear stage populated by dancers in various states of apparently weightless acrobatics. Unfortunately this could only be seen by those in premium view seats. With so many refugees at each intermission, however, others may have seen the marvellous illusion if they upgraded. This was yet another unforgivable part of the evening since even some people in A reserve seats (and most in B and D reserves) would have missed out on the tunnel like kaleidoscopic vista.

The orchestra was reduced and raised with theorbo, harpsichord and 'cello continuo producing an excellent accompaniment to the opera. At one stage a violin solo/obbligato was performed on stage by Huy-Nguyen Bui. While a pleasant diversion, it did not have the same impact as in Julius Caesar.

The quality of the singing went from adequate to exciting and the company should be commended on being able to perform this complex and long work. Yet the final product is a defective and diminutive shadow of its former incarnation on this stage in 1983 and 1987. Perhaps that is just the way the world is. It is only sad that some of the major deficiencies would be simply resolved in my view using red ink which would cost nothing at all (and might even save in orchestra over-time).

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..