In the Israeli Opera rehearsal room, soprano Yael Levita (Alcina) and soprano Hila Fahima-Ruschin (Morgana) circle each other with fierce intensity, as they clash over the destiny of counter tenor Yi Vince (Ruggiero). Levita’s pink dress contrasts with the green costume worn by Fahima, as Vince’s white smoking jacket gleams under the spotlight.
Held days before Frideric Handel’s Alcina hits the stage this week in Tel Aviv, the rehearsal includes a polite voice on the speakers that cues respective singers to join and play their parts. In the orchestra pit, conductor Ethan Schemisser looks back and instructs his assistant to note a specific musical bar to be revisited later. Dropping a pin in the musical coordinates originally penned by Handel in 1735.
Alcina is a sorceress seeking love, when Ruggiero arrives on her magic island she charms him into adoring her without measure. When he fails to return home, his former lover, Bradamante, seeks him out, arrives at the island disguised as a man and pretends to be her own brother, Ricciardo.
Alcina desires Ruggiero, her sister Morgana wants Ricciardo, but Ricciardo is actually Bradamante, who wants Ruggiero to awaken from the spell and flee the island. It is, in reality, a wasteland full of monsters that Ruggiero is tricked into seeing as a green island full of animals, not realizing these are all jilted lovers Alcina tricked and dispensed with long ago.
Will Ruggiero also turn into a beast or will he finally see through the lies?
When performed, the opera was not the success Handel had hoped. In his search for more lucrative styles, he invented the English language oratorio [scriptures set to music], which eventually led to the 1741 masterpiece Messiah.
Not surprising for a composer who wrote Coronation Anthems to kings, Alcina became a victim to a political clash. At the time, opera houses were as politically connected as respective television news channels today. Alcina was performed in a monarchy-aligned house and also suffered the misfortune of being staged at a time when musical tastes began to shift, Haifa University Music Department Lecturer Dr. Alon Schab says.
“I am the editor of a soon-to-be published critical edition of the Coronation Anthems,” Schab tells me, “I know these works down to the ink stains on the pages. Yet for Handel, the big passion was always opera.”
“Handel,” he adds, “was a very good businessman and the opera back then was a business. He collected paintings, invested in the stock market and gave to charity.” The losses he incurred due to Alcina, he argues, also damaged Handel’s health.
Handel was celebrated in the Weimar Republic as the embodiment of the cosmopolitan and liberal values of that short-lived state. A German composer who mastered the opera in Italy and assumed wealth and power in England, was out of step with what the Nazi party thought music should be – partly why they placed Wagner as the musical embodiment of the nation.
The next great turn for Handel came in the 1960’s with the emergence of historically informed performances: Playing baroque music, and that of other ages, with period instruments.
“There were many recordings of Beethoven, and here there was a chance to record and offer on the market something new,” Schemisser says in the conductor’s room next to a large framed photograph of Gary Bertini.
“Baroque music,” he says as he makes sure I write down Handel is actually late Baroque, “was dancing music.”
DUE TO the messy process of creating opera productions at the time, librettos were changed to suit the strengths of respective singers. For example mezzosoprano Rosa Negri, or altered when the theorbo player could not travel with the troupe to the next city.
This is why music scholar Charles Rosen coined the phrase Skeleton Notation. Singers and musicians were expected to offer embellishments, to give variations when the aria pushes forward with the repetition of the text. To pour flesh over the bones of the libretto.
When tenor Benjamin Bruns, in the role of Oronte, Morgana’s lover, sings “Semplicetto! a donna credi?” [Fool! You trust a woman?], he can confront Ricciardo on stage or hug him in comradery. When tenor Rockwell Blake sings the part, the crowd is taken on an unparalleled emotional ride between humor, sympathy and haughtiness.
“Singing Verdi is a lot of fun”, Fahima tells me, “but the beautiful thing about the baroque is that you take the written materials and embellish them in repetition.”
“In the 19th-century opera style bel canto,” she points out, “the instruction is to sing come scritto, as written, so this type of freedom is not available.”
“This opera,” she suggests, “is totally about female empowerment. The main roles are given to women and they move the plot. The message Morgana gives the audience, that she can love more than one man, is the same one touched upon in [Bizet’s 1875 opera] Carmen.”
“She might start out like a witch,” Levita says about Alcina, “but this peels off and she becomes a very human and touching character.”
Indeed, in one scene, the maids around Alcina open their mouths in a shocking silent scream, which amplifies the anguish their mistress feels.
In her reading of the opera, Levit suggests that “Alcina knows the men who love her do so because they are charmed. This is why she turns them into rocks or animals in the original opera and to servants in this production.”
Despite her powers, she knows she is not loved for who she is, so after she satiates her desires she feels contempt and drives these men out of her life.
One of the best known arias from Alcina is “Verdi prati” [Green Meadows]. In it, Ruggiero confesses that even now, when he knows the island is a wasteland full of monsters, he knows he will miss the illusion of it as a lush paradise when he leaves.
“I imagined the island as a place out of time,” opera director Ido Ricklin tells me, “and remembered Sunset Boulevard. In that film too, a heroine wishes to stop time and falls in love with a young man with tragic results.”
When debating how to present Alcina’s magic, a stage question solved by Handel with pyrotechnics, Ricklin remembered the aria “Dì, cor mio” [Speak, beloved] and came to the conclusion, alongside Levita and Fahima, that she has word magic built on repetition and suggestibility.
“Through her words, she bewitches us to believe in things which are not there,” he tells me.
“The original Ruggiero,” Ricklin points out, “arrives on the island on a hippogriff. I thought a motorcycle would be a good replacement.”
If the 2011 Alcina production at the Vienna State Opera hinted Ruggiero is off-kilter by having him abandon his sabre in the service of love, Ricklin offers that replacing a leather jacket and a rambling iron-horse with a smoking jacket works better for those brought up in the American Century.
“Once I suggested this idea, everyone in the opera house pitched which model of a motorcycle we should use,” he laughs, “I really could not help there; I ride a bicycle.”
Alcina by Handel at the Israel Opera. Premieres May 18 (Wednesday) at 7:30 p.m., with three more shows to follow: Friday (May 27) at 1 p.m. Saturday (May 28) at 9 p.m. and Monday (May 30) at 8 p.m. Sung in Italian with English and Hebrew subtitles. Tickets range from NIS 320 to NIS 195.
For more information, visit www.israel-opera.co.il/eng/ or call 03-692-7777. The Israeli Opera is at 19 King Saul Boulevard, Tel Aviv. Dr. Schab’s book is due to be released in 2024, by Carus-Verlag of Stuttgart.