The ever-accumulating appropriation of soprano repertory by Joyce DiDonato continues apace. Tonight, in Handel’s 1735 Alcina, the mezzo sang neither Ruggiero – the opera’s most demanding and extensive role, written for a castrato – nor that of Bradamante – surely the opera’s most beautiful, written for a contralto – but the title role itself, which in the last decade or so I’ve heard sung on stage by Renée Fleming and Anja Harteros. Given that Alice Coote sang Ruggiero, and Christine Rice Bradamante in this performance, the provision of mezzo-soprano voices was surely excessive, and one wonders why we couldn’t have had a genuine soprano Alcina and a counter-tenor Ruggiero to re-balance the higher voiced sonorities, with only a gleaming Anna Christy’s Morgana left to fly the flag for actual sopranos among the principals.


But this, of course, would have deprived us of Ms. DiDonato’s (anti) heroine, the raison d’être I imagine of the whole sold-out enterprise, forming part of her season-long Barbican residency following on from the recherché bel canto bash I reviewed two weeks ago. So, having already intimated that to my ears a mezzo Alcina sounds wrong for the role, how did Ms. DiDonato fare in it? Very well indeed: it gives her a widely disparate range of moods and feelings to depict – sometimes, as with Act II’s “Ah! mio cor”, within the one aria – and if the actual rather wiry tone-colour of the voice remains largely unchanged through emotional thick-and-thin, the stage animal in her relishes the opportunities provided for displays of flamboyant theatricality ranging from withering contempt to besotted fawning, imperious command to abject despair. And though this was pretty strictly a concert performance, with everyone working from their scores and front-facing music stands, Ms. DiDonato obtained maximum mileage from moments when she elected to remain “on” – as opposed to sitting to one side, “off” – simply listening and reacting to other people’s arias addressed to her, even to the (slightly naughty) extent of upstaging one or two of them by the sheer communicative power of her visible responses thereto. Elsewhere, her vocalism in propria persona was up to her own classy standards, though I’ve certainly heard both Act II’s “Ombre pallide” and III’s “Mi restano le lagrime” sung with more rounded, warmer tone and a deal more of audible – as opposed to visible – emotion. What to my mind never once helped her assumption was her hideous frock, looking like one of Cruella De Vil’s cast-offs, all mottled splotches of black and off-white in endless layers, with block shoulders Fafner would have been proud of: and her decision to have her hair flattened at the sides and the rest upswept into an enormous blonde quiff, so that from the neck up she looked like a male rocker from the cast of Grease, whereas the rest of her had clearly wandered on from 101 Dalmatians.


But this sartorial silliness extended further, and much more damagingly to the drama, with Alice Coote’s appearance with open-toed high heels, loose long-flowing hair and any amount of bosom and attendant cleavage, all of which might be lovely if a) you like that kind of thing and b) she was singing a woman’s part. But she wasn’t. She was singing that of Ruggiero, a warrior male, written for Giovanni Carestini. And this in an opera where we already have one woman – Bradamante – actually dressed as a man because she’s in disguise. The poor bloke from the LSO I spoke to afterwards said to me, in all seriousness “Did they really have lesbian affairs shown on stage in Handel’s time?” He was utterly dumbstruck when I told him that Ruggiero is supposed to be a man, and Bradamante a woman, since he’d decided – perfectly reasonably on the available visual evidence – that it was the other way round. And he isn’t stupid, just unfamiliar with this neck of the repertory: I wonder how many of those present actually knew who was who, or more pertinently, what, given the appearance of it all? (certainly not the woman in front, who laughed like a drain from first to last, as if somebody had told her Handel could be funny, whereupon she’d decided it was a flat-out farce, all three hours’ worth of it). As it happens, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Ms. Coote’s singing either, which struck me as short-winded, with much breaking of the coloratura for breaths and general line-management, and sounding somewhat ill-at-ease with the alto-castrato tessitura (though I’m quite sure setting the pitch as low as A=415 Hz – which I’m fairly certain it was, though not mentioned anywhere in the programme– does no-one any favours, and least of all modern mezzos stuck with the thankless and largely impossible task of trying to emulate castrati). The only singer I’ve ever encountered live who managed this without evident effort, whilst miraculously having the necessary physique du role to boot is Susan Graham, whose Ruggiero was simply stunning, and upstaged poor Ms. Fleming thoroughly in her own opera, (though Natalie Dessay then proceeded to upstage the pair of them).

For me, quite the best of the mezzo singing tonight came from Christine Rice, whose voice sounded richly upholstered and gorgeously warm throughout its break-free range, and whose coloratura technique, as evidenced by the long runs – what Mozart termed “chopped noodles” – was impeccable, with nary a crafty gasp for breath or any sense of micro-management just to get through it. “Vorrei vendicarmi” in Act II was the finest piece of sheer singing heard all evening. Alas, even she wasn’t helpfully dressed, being in trousers, but with a floaty spangly, chiffony thing over the top, so that she could have been a woman dressed as a man – which the character of Bradamante is – or a man dressed as a woman – these things happen, you know – or, indeed, a woman singing a man’s role who’s dressed as a woman (Cherubino, anybody?). Baroque opera’s hard enough to follow plot-wise at the best of times: and bereft of staging clues, needs all the help it can get in the costuming, utterly unforthcoming here.

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And then there was the very pregnant Anna Christy as Morgana, Alcina’s scheming, slightly slutty sister (the role Dessay sang under William Christie to traffic-stopping acclaim in Paris, dressed as a 1930s Lyon’s Maid Corner House waitress, forever juggling with the silver service). This was a fine piece of singing, with some exemplary, unbroken strands of coloratura, and a characterisation which replaced Dessay’s wide-eyed, gung-ho innocence with kittenish vampery of the Noel Coward variety, very funny to watch and a joy to hear. “Tornami a vagheggiar” at the end of Act I was simply irresistible and duly brought the house down.

More exemplary coloratura was on offer from the score’s token tenor, the villainous dupe Oronte, sung by Ben Johnson with a lovely lyric sound (but alas at a complete tenorial discount given the prevailing Baroque pitch, dumping him somewhere simply too low for his complete comfort or ease of projection). It says something for the depths of Wojtek Gierlach’s bass that he could navigate these murky waters so readily as Melisso (actually Atlante in disguise, but thankfully always a man) even if his production isn’t entirely as steady as one would wish in someone still relatively young. And Anna Devin confirmed the positive impression she’s given at the ROH latterly on the young singers’ programme, here singing Oberto (a young boy role entrusted to a soprano: cue yet more costume/gender confusion) with a beautifully clear, bright and forward sound that had more than a hint of feminine allure in it, to the point that I started wondering whether she should be looking at the title role (her dramatic responses seem well up to the task).

Harry Bickett led the forces of the English Concert from the harpsichord in a commendably full text – unlike the Barbican’s cut-to-shreds L’incoronazione di Poppea last week – so that, two brief intervals included, we didn’t get out much before 11 after a 7 p.m. start. There was some strikingly eloquent continuo cello work, and much very detailed and polished playing, not least by the recorders (though nothing on earth will ever reconcile me to the raucous and unbelievably approximate squawkings of baroque horns, a pair of which popped up mercifully late in the day to near-ruin Ruggiero’s fiery “Sta nell’Ircana” in Act III, otherwise Alice Coote’s finest hour by far. This is why God invented valves).

A postscript. Having already filleted the programme once in futile search of any enlightenment on the subject of performance pitch, I have only just now trawled the various artists’ biographies in search of the occasionally-dropped casual bombshell – you know, “Mme. Bumsenklang will be singing Norma at the Met in 2019”, that sort of thing – and what do I find, appended to the end of Ms. DiDonato’s, italics and all?

Tonight Joyce DiDonato is wearing the Vivienne Westwood Sueno Corset Gown in a petrol-green and black scaled silk jacquard with a shattered-glass multi-coloured tulle skirt and crushed leather bolero from the Couture Collection”

Well quite. Although I prefer to think of it as “The Spotted Dog Frock”.

Lord, we live in strange times….

3.5 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor

(Photos : Mark Allan / Barbican)