Going for Baroque: Handel’s Magical Mystery Enchanted Island Tour

Photo credits:  Lawrence K Ho, LA Opera

Best known for his 1742 oratorio the Messiah, with its immortal, glorious “Hallelujah Chorus,” George Frederick Handel was also a prolific composer of operas. Earlier this month, Angelenos had a special treat, an opportunity to enjoy a concert performance of Handel’s 1735 opera Alcina, presented by London-based The English Concert. The plot and theme of this delightful 18th century work would be familiar to devotees of Woody Allen movies – infidelity and shifting romantic partnerships, a sort of sexual musical chairs.

The story, which Handel adapted from Riccardo Broschi’s 1728 Rome-set libretto of L'isola di Alcina, takes place at an enchanted isle presided over by the eponymous enchantress Alcina. Spells are cast, identities are mistaken, there are some gender bender twists and shapeshifting, as star-crossed lovers have their faithfulness (or lack of) challenged. An interesting plot point is the introduction of “The Ring of Truth,” a sort of ancient lie detector enabling the bearer to determine whether one’s beau or belle is being honest or, as the libretto puts it, “a cruel deceiver.” Ahh, the fickle finger of fidelity!

In their LA Opera debut The English Concert performed the three-act, three-and-a-half-hour production in, more or less, modern dress and sans the elaborate sets and props that often regale the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s sumptuous stage. The 20-plus musicians of The English Concert, presided over by Liverpudlian Harry Bicket – who also displayed virtuoso finger work on a period harpsichord – did not play in the pit, where James Conlon usually conducts the LA Opera Orchestra. Rather, The English Concert performed onstage, where they were periodically joined by Alcina’s six singers, standing behind music stands holding the opera’s score and lyrical libretto. (Thomas Foster is also listed in LA Opera’s credits under harpsichord.)

Being in full view enhanced one’s sense and enjoyment of Handel’s music. Baroque music is often associated with brassy instruments, but Alcina’s instruments stressed the more soothing strings. In addition to nine violins, violas, violoncellos and a double bass, Sergio Bucheli plucked what is a rarity nowadays – a theorbo, a long-necked stringed instrument in the lute family. As for the aforementioned harpsichord, with its mellifluous sound, this happens to be my favorite instrument, so I was in heaven whenever Bicket tickled the ivories of this neglected relic of centuries gone by. (Although those other Liverpudlians, the Beatles, used the harpsichord in 1965’s “Rubber Soul’s” plaintive, lilting “In My Life.”)

The English Concert’s strings were also joined by oboes and a bassoon. But it wasn’t until Act III when that distinctively bouncy, brassy, baroque sound rang out, when Richard Bayliss and Ursula Paludan Monberg (see: Brass & Timps – The English Concert) held forth with horns, and the plot’s pace picked up and dashed toward the grand finale. Will the Ring of Truth ring out like the French horns and true love triumphantly conquer all?

The female-dominated cast was led by Quebecois soprano as the titular island queen, Alcina. English soprano Lucy Crowe crooned the lines of Alcina’s sister, Morgana, who can also cast spells, with Pennsylvanian mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as lovelorn Bradamante. My favorite was the crossdressing Paula Murrihy, a mezzo-soprano from County Kerry, Ireland, as the knight Ruggiero. Ohio tenor Alek Shrader played the dishonest Oronte, while Polish bass Wojtek Gierlach sang Melisso’s part.

Alcina was positively bewitching and this opera aficionado ardently hopes this debut by The English Concert is but the first of many more performances to come. It perfectly set the tone for LA Opera’s holiday season, which is being celebrated by Gioachino Rossini’s operatic adaptation of the classic fairy tale, Cinderella.

CINDERELLA, LA CENERENTOLA opens Saturday, Nov. 20 at 7:30 p.m.; and is being performed Sundays Nov. 28 and Dec. 12 at 2:00 p.m.; and on Dec. 1, 4 and 8 at 7:30 p.m., at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For tickets: Cinderella | LA Opera; (213)972-8001. For info about The English Concert: The English Concert.