tue 16/08/2022

Handel's Alcina, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Handel's Alcina, Barbican

Handel's Alcina, Barbican

An unforgettable night for lovers of the Baroque - and the jumpsuit

Classical music does not get any cooler than mezzo Vesselina Kasarova. She jived. She grooved. She shuffled. She shimmied. She possessed the Barbican stage last night, an awesome black jumpsuit hanging off her rangy, kinetic figure, her neck sliding about like an Indian dancer's, her feet (in kitten heels) spinning like a jazzer's, her bullying arms posturing and prodding, her mouth flashing its whites like a primate's. Her voice? Extraordinarily weird, moving, honest, explosive. Her Sta nell'Ircana was a theatrical moment of the year.

It wasn't all about Kasarova's Ruggiero, however, by any means - which shows just what kind of night it was. Inga Kalna's Alcina had the best run of things vocally. Hers is a conventional - old-fashioned almost - full, strong soprano voice. And, in a way, typical of singers of her age and Eastern European background, she simply got on with things, effortlessly and eloquently giving sound to Handel's incredible melodic ideas. She was perhaps the only one whose technique allowed her to make gold out of all the fiery numbers and shadowy ones that were flung at her. (And she gets plenty of brownie points too for jumping in to replace an indisposed Anja Harteros.)

But the multivalent role of Alcina - ruler, sorceress, spoilt libertine, spurned lover, sad reject - requires much more than vocal control. And Kalna did much more than produce attractive musical turns of phrase. She embodied the tragedy of this woman. Like many of Handel's operas, emotions, speeds and colours follow a downward curve to a stilled core. We track this line of dark beauty into fragmented madness and rage, ending up on the emotional floor in Alcina's "Ah! Mio cor". Kalna's navigation of these vocal and psychological extremities was very classy indeed. Echoing the journey is Minkowski's impeccable orchestra, which ends up chasing its tail in Alcina's despairing aria, looping its way round and round with a Purcellian intensity (I felt the chill of Mr Frost here), in step-wise progressions and cello ostinati.
Yet despite Kalna's musicality - her calm, deranged contrapuntal snaking in Act Three was incredible - she was nearly upstaged (as were all the adults) by an angelic little boy, Shintato Nakajima (Oberto). His opening aria, "Who can lead me to my father?/ Who can cheer me to his return?", which is swaddled in cello, theorbo and harpsichord, was heartbreaking. Emotion through splendid arias there was plenty. Narrative exposition through recitative, thankfully, there was far less of. This is a simple and instructive story, most of it driven by the deeds of Bradamante, sung by fine mezzo Romina Basso. Her attempts to snap lover Ruggiero out of his spell - which has made him believe he is in love with Alcina - forms the central plank to the cautionary tale, around which boughs of jealousy and intrigue wind their way.
The other female plot-furtherer, Veronica Cangemi as Alcina's not-so-scheming sister Morgana, did very little for me. Her vocal offerings were full of effort, artifice and breathiness. Some might say the same about Kasarova. She certainly had her difficulties. Her leaps weren't always clean; her intonation wasn't always secure. But none of this mattered. She had personality and truth on her side. How accurately sore her "Verdi prati" was. How perfectly traumatic,
unattractive, her sotto voce became at times. And why not. Good opera is not about vocal beauty. It's about rightness. And no one could come close to the rightness of Kasarova's portrait of bewitched youth.
All of which still doesn't quite do the evening justice. For then we come to the orchestra. Ismene Brown might have her own thoughts on this (Les Talens Lyrique were performing the same night in London) but for me there is no finer French period orchestra than Les Musiciens du Louvre. And it had more than a few opportunities to show why. Their conductor, Mark Minkowski, had a large orchestra: three double basses, three oboes and three bassoons. He balanced the parts to perfection, allowing them all to flower and flow so freely and grandly that many of their radiant outbursts were as lush as a Brahms symphony.
And the presence of such a large bass section meant he could really rattle the foundations at the start of Act Two to indicate the substantial shift in perception that Ruggiero undergoes. Two recorders punctuated several arias with a heady burring. Cellist Nils Wieboldt joined in at one stage with a weighty Bach-like bit of vocalising. The leader of the orchestra, Thibault Noally, circles a singer with his sweet-toned violin at another point. And to finish it off, we were tootled to safety with a woody period piccolo. A great night for lovers of the Baroque - and the jumpsuit.
  • Check out the two other Baroque operas in the Barbican's Orlando Furioso series
  • See what's on at the Barbican this season
  • Find Mark Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre on Amazon


Sometimes stillness is a virtue. But that would expose Kasarova's incredibly dodgy technique. Frankly, I'm amazed to hear that she's still singing.

I have to agree with Morgana here. On the few occasions (Verdi Prati being the main casualty, but also the gorgeous Mi Lusinghe) where she had nothing dramatic to hide behind, Kasarova exposed the limits of her technique. Great for coloratura, when it comes to sustained line and tonal/pitch control she simply doesn't have it. Add to this her inability to judge a rit correctly and her one-emotion-fits-all contortions, and for me she is all smoke and mirrors. I did enjoy the jumpsuit though.

I'm with you both. I make no claims for Kasarova's technique; as you both say - as I say - she doesn't have one. But my point is that that matters not a jot. Personality for me will always trump technique. Throw in a striking face (hers was straight from Andrei Rublev), a natty hairdo and a fine jumpsuit (I know, I should just buy one for myself) and I'm yours. What can I say, I'm a materialist.

I saw the show last night, and though not an expert on Baroque Opera, I found the whole evening simply amazing. The ensemble playing of the orchestra; together with the committment and talent of the brilliantly assembled cast, had a magical effect. I wanted to write as I totally disagreed with the above comments about Kasarova. For me, she was unique and spellbinding. Who gives a damn about technique when you are drawing a performance from the dephts of your soul? Bravo to the entire cast! An evening not easily forgotten.

I think the 2nd half was amazing.All the cast unfold in better light including this young Japanese boy who sung with such confidence and amzing technique at his age!!!Wonderful orchestra conducted by a great conductor and what a great music it became!!

I thought the show was grand. Would have loved to hear Harteros as Alcina, but Kalna was also good. As for Kasarova, she is in a class of her own. I'm with Mr. Toronyi-Lalic that her personality and dramatic commitment overshadowed technical irregularities. But she DOES have technique! Just because it isn't a conventional one doesn't mean that it doesn't exist altogether! She chooses to do things other singers wouldn't do. Yes. So what? It works for her. The voice is lush and radiant, full and very agile. How could anyone still have that after 20+years of opera singing and not have technique? I'm personally grateful she does it the way she does. I closed my eyes, listened, and I heard Ruggiero and not a singer trying to sound like Ruggiero. That is opera. Opera is theatrical because it was always meant to be theatrical and not a string of vocal exercises.

Frankly Morgana I'm amazed at your comment. Now in interests of full disclosure I am a) a dyed in the wool hardcore Kasarova fangirl, slinky dress jumpsuit and kitten heels or not and b) a complete ignoramus when it comes to music. But no technique? Really??? Seemed to me the orchestra agreed with me and a huge part of the rest of the audience - she has technique (and passion, and talent, and musicality) dripping out her agressively pointy fingers. I'm not so bedazzled as to not know the difference between a good and a bad performance. Saw her in Idomeneo in Paris and hated it, saw her singing Ruggiero in Vienna two weeks ago and loved it, but no where near as much as I loved this... Quite happy to accept she is not to everyone's taste, and god knows she has her off days, and roles, but to say someone who has devoted their entire adult life to the serious study and practice of singing has 'no technique'... well frankly, there's no need to over-egg the pudding! Saturday was not the first time, nor the first orchestra, I have seen stop and applaud with the audience her incredible performance technique. I know nothing about music, but I'm reasonably certain they do.

Purity McCall (love the name, love the writing): I didn't say 'no technique', far from it, I said 'dodgy'. And I wasn't there, so I'm very happy to concede that the extraordinary Vesa may have pulled it off, and delighted to read about it. It's just that I've seen performances from her which scared me in the wrong way - ie the Sesto at the Royal Opera, an experience I wouldn't want to repeat.

Point taken Morgana, I suspect we are in violent agreement. As someone so amusingly put it on Twitter this morning; she's the Marmite of opera singers. I suppose I am just spoiler, or old, or more likely both, but I have had enough good technique to last a lifetime. I want someone to shiver what little is left of my timbers. VK does that everytime, but i concede not always in a good way... But my god when she's good (as she most certainly was on Saturday) she's awfully good. Someone like Garanca could song the arias with better technqiue I guess, but she could never sing the rolew better.. Given that as Igor (Igor... Igor?...I had a stableboy of that name once, genius with the saddle soap he was... happy days) pointed out she was sashaying around the place in an evening harem pants jumpsuit and heels was a miracle she pulled off the testosterone piled role so well.

Gosh that lunchtime glass of Merlot has gone shtraight to my shpelling...

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