Every year in Salzburg, Cecilia Bartoli spearheads a project, i.e., an opera. She, of course, is the iconic Italian mezzo-soprano born in 1966. The opera this year is Alcina, by Handel.
Which one is that? If you’re like me, they tend to run together in your head: Agrippina, Ariodante, Atalanta—and I’ve only cited a few starting with “A.”
The two best-known arias from Alcina are “Verdi prati,” smooth and beautiful, and “Tornami a vagheggiar,” a delightful showpiece.
What is Alcina about? Oh, it’s weird, weirder than usual. You can look it up, if you like. Sorcery, men turned into trees, etc. Also, the opera is very “gender-fluid,” as we’d say today, and gender-confused. For Bartoli and the Salzburg Festival, Damiano Michieletto put together an ultra-modern production loaded with symbolism. If you could understand it, good for you.
Was [Bartoli] ever over the top as Alcina? Yes, a little—but she is so sincere, so committed, you can forgive her any of that. In some stretches, she was riveting. Positively mesmeric.
On Friday night, the singing in general was first-rate. But before getting to them—before getting to the cast—I would like to mention the conductor, because, without him, the music doesn’t get off the ground, no matter how good the singers are. Gianluca Capuano is a fine Handel exponent, as he has proved at this festival in the past. He has a keen sense of tempo, phrasing, dynamics, structure, and the other elements that figure in conducting. He was never less than musical, the whole evening long. He never let the evening flag.
His band was Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco, whose PR materials tell us that it is “a Baroque ensemble founded in the spring of 2016 in the Principality of Monaco on the initiative of Cecilia Bartoli . . .”
The soprano of the evening was Sandrine Piau, the veteran Frenchwoman. She was born in 1965. Why do I draw attention to her age? Well, because she is singing so well, and moving so well, and because . . . because . . . she looks fabulous, and she plays a sexpot—one of the sorceresses—in Alcina, and plays her with complete persuasiveness. Bartoli was the star of the show—the title character—but Piau, too, put on a tour de force.
There was one other mezzo onstage, besides Bartoli. She was Kristina Hammarström, a Swede, who sang with great security and feeling. She is an obvious Handelian, and she added a lot to a thoroughly Handelian evening.
Our hero, Ruggiero, was Philippe Jaroussky, the French countertenor. He did much beautiful singing. But I must say, in all candor (too much?), that I did not buy this sweet-voiced countertenor as a warrior and lady-killer.
As Bartoli was riveting me, I thought, “None of this would be possible without gfh”—without George Frederick Handel.
There was a kid on the stage—a boy singer. You know the old caution: “Never work with children or animals.” He was maybe the best child singer I have ever heard. He sang utterly in tune, for one thing. He was endearing with his round glasses, and, when it came time to bow, he was too shy to make eye contact with the audience. He just grinned, looked down, and bowed.
Have I mentioned his name? He is Sheen Park, a member of the Vienna Boys Choir.
Okay, la Bartoli. I have been writing about her for twenty-five years or something and have nothing left to say. But let me attempt a few words. Was she ever over the top as Alcina? Yes, a little—but she is so sincere, so committed, you can forgive her any of that. In some stretches, she was riveting. Positively mesmeric. When she staggers around the stage with a dagger in her hand, angrily singing “Sono Regina”—“I am the Queen”—you believe it.
Her native Italian was a considerable asset. She can act with her face as well as anyone I have seen onstage lately. And—I don’t mean to harp on age—she is not exactly an ingénue, as a singer. And she is still working at full throttle, with satisfying, often thrilling, results.
By the way, she and Piau tramped all over the stage, in high heels, all night long. I couldn’t help thinking of the famous line attributed to Flagstad: What does it take to sing Isolde? “A comfortable pair of shoes.” Neither of these Alcina singers had one.
Give the last word to Handel—that undrying fount of musical creativity. As Bartoli was riveting me, I thought, “None of this would be possible without gfh”—without George Frederick Handel. Alcina is a very long opera—almost five hours, with two intermissions. Before I saw it, I talked with a patron of the festival, who had seen it. I said, “It’s a long one, isn’t it?” He said, “Yes, but it’s Handel. And the more Handel, the better.”