Canadian director Robert Carsen's decade-old production of Haendel's Alcina, to celebrate the 250th anniversary to Handel's death was dusted off from Opéra National de Paris (which also traveled to Chicago Lyric Opera in the Fall of 1999 and starred Natalie Dessay as Morgana and Renee Fleming as Alcina) but should have probably been kept under lock & key, left to gather mold. OC is on the record as being an ardent Robert Carsen fan & devotee, having seen half-a-dozen Carsen productions since her three years in Milan -- his Scala Candide was brilliant but hammy-handed, his Teatro Regio Torino Salome was earth-shattering in its emotional and artistic impact, his Wiener Staatsoper Manon Lescaut was kind of meeeh, his Scala Kát'a Kabanová was completely off-the-hook, and his Opernhaus Zürich Semele was elegance squared -- and OC's DVD of Carsen's Dialogue des Carmelites is a prized possession of a perfect -- yes, perfect -- staging, but the production we saw last night was Carsen in derivative form, action distilled to a meager slice of remembrance, static, tenuous shadows of his Semele without most of the wit or tongue-in-cheek social commentary that Carsen has perfected like a rebellious teenager. He is not Ingmar Bergman, thank goodness, and he shouldn't pretend to be -- he's usually not bashful about being an opera director.
Seen at Milan's Piermarini for the first time last night, la prima was dampened by two meager, tepid curtain calls, mercifully abbreviated to spare poor Patricia Petibon's Scala debut further scorn from the thorny logginonisti who hurled boos at her (in addition to a conflagration of booing at the end of Act I).
Heavy cuts (at least half-a-dozen arias, the chorus -- Maestro Casoni's peerless chorus -- reduced to a much smaller role, no ballet, and Oberto chillingly mutilated) peppered this almost-4-hour (including scene changes) production. Carsen used the desaturated, ivory walls of a palace to cage-in the action (ripped off by Claus Guth for his 2006 Nozze, with mold added here and there, and that unwritten Cupid), doors that slid open to reveal a garden -- touchingly Rousseauian in its dashing greens. The furniture consisted of, like, four Chippendale chairs, and a wheeled dinner cart. Lights -- very beautifully designed, obviously -- can not always compensate for that kind of spareness.
Act I opened to the all-male chorus in various states of undress slumbering on the floor (we had full-on frank n' beans -- photo above NOT from la Scala but from the same production in 2004 at Opéra Garnier)...a Spencer Tunick opening move by chess master Carsen that made us hope for much better things to come. The director chose to make the corps literally into corpses, men-turned-zombies from Alcina's charms, the ghosts of her past, the Furies of love past, and we like to consider that a Sam Raimi/Evil Dead homage -- without putrefaction -- even if it wasn't. Although there was lots of nudity, there was no sensual, sexual energy. The production, on purpose, was cold and stripped of any eroticism by that big Canadian tease.
Petibon, whose thin voice -- with less than perfect coloratura -- is more viable in a tiny Baroque opera house environment or recording studio, and was swallowed in the crevasses of Scala despite possible ~audio enhancement~ [last night at a certain interval of the opera, there was the clear, unmistakeable high-pitched whining of classic audio feedback which was obviously amped from the Scala stage...we're dying with this one because clearly there was some sort of amplification audio system being used; we knew Berlin's Staatsoper already used electronic sound enhancement, we didn't know la Scala had followed through], struggled from the beginning of her Scala debut last night. Act II's "Ama, sospira" was a rough embark despite the ethereal violin solo, Petibon labored through the grueling aria, struggling to keep up with Maestro Antonini's speed, appearing almost as pained as she looked in her (not-so-high) heels and tight French-maid costume.
Petibon was too sporty, too distracted, and too frivolous to be effective -- she was following stage directions, O.K., but you need different acting skills to pull it off -- she probably couldn't. She hobbled around in kitten heels that could have been 8-inch stilettos considering the way she plodded across the stage. Opera Chic felt bad for Petibon, and we're still fans of the lovely redhead...this was simply the wrong production for her.
It was at the end of Act I after Morgana's Tornami a vagheggiar that the Scala audience first voiced their disapproval. Roundly booed as the curtain went down, the boos fell onto an empty stage, but there was no doubt they were meant for Petibon, whose weak phrasing and underwhelming interpretation were an easy target for the *serious businessman* loggioni. Petibon's accuti were decent with her fluttering technique, but she lacked focus.
And in Tornami we have one of the very, very few truly outstanding monents in Carsen's staging -- Morgana serving dinner to an empty jacket -- those men, aren't they just empty suits? -- and dancing a little happy dance... The problem being that Nathalie Dessay (in a production that William Christie led beautifully as always) pulled it off with humor and her sweetness and vulnerability and gusto (see video below); Petibon couldn't.
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Anja Harteros made a towering column of Alcina, poised and contained as a quiet bundle of simmering conflict, depicted as a strong man-eater in mesh dresses and ballet flats. The German soprano was slow to warm and frankly, we were a bit worried during Act I that the entire production was totally doomed, but Harteros came back full-throttle during the next two acts and gifted the audience with harrowing color and well-shaped passages.
For Morgana's maid, Oronte was depicted as a butler. We enjoyed Jeremy Ovenden's light touch as Oronte, and his "È un folle, è un vile affetto," was lovely. But Carsen's direction at its weakest point failed during the action between Morgana and Oronte. It was way too nuanced, distracting and overt.
However, when Carsen's direction worked, it was indeed breathtaking. Alcina's "Ah,mio cor! Schernito sei!" was a gorgeous melange of direction and lighting (by Jean Kalman) where Harteros moves into the heavily shadowed corner of the room, eventually crumpling into a heap on the floor, barely discernible. She literally becomes a stain on the floor, this towering man-eater reduced to a shadow.
Ruggiero, sung by Monica Bacelli, was absolutely on point. She is a consummate professional, and always comes prepared, her pockets full of beautiful surprises to show us, happy kids in the audience -- she's always ready to awe us. We are still raving about her Sesto in Graham Vick's La Clemenza @ Teatro Regio di Torino...Team Bacelli 4 evar! Her Act II cemented it with "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" that had us reeling with her sweet voice full of nuance.
The pared-down orchestra under maestro Giovanni Antonini mostly kept a fast pace (sometimes a bit too much for the singers) with his quicksilver pacing, but there was synchronization and light. Antonini got a large, healthy applause even from cranky loggione -- it appeared to Opera Chic to be a correct reading, but shorn of the genius of a William Christie, for example; and the cuts he opetd for are indeed quite brutal -- you have a chorus such as la Scala's, probably the august theater's only truly world-class section, together with the strings and primo ballerino Roberto Bolle, you use that chorus for every note written in the score. It's like being handed a Ferrari and using it to drive over to pasticceria for a few sweets, then park it back in the garage.
Opera Chic is always in favor -- in opera and in life -- of unleashing the monster.