If you’re ever having trouble grasping the theory of relativity, just see Alcina, the event horizon of opera, where time slows beyond all earthly measures. Pick any aria in which one of the characters moans about being dumped—that would be all of them—take a little snooze, wake up and check the surtitles: yup, they’re still singing about being dumped.
Alcina isn’t the most frequently performed opera, and you soon begin to understand why. It’s a baroque-era traditional Italian opera seria, a style that was already considered old fashioned by the time it debuted in 1735. Its libretto involves little plot development, suspense, or interaction in the form of duets; the opera consists mostly of characters shouting at each other through a series of long and repetitive arias. After a revival in 1738, the opera wasn’t staged again for nearly 200 years. If not for a particularly notable Venice run starring Joan Sutherland in the 1960s, it might have mercifully faded into obscurity.
To be fair,George Frideric Handel’s music, and the singing in this production, is quite soothing, even if the rest of the production has relatively little to offer. At times, director Anne Bogart seems to have given up on stage action entirely and simply has the characters fill instrumental space during intros and outros by walking very slowly. Even the dance numbers, written into Handel’s original, are choppy and sluggish, with dancers doing a kind of stop motion robot. So keeping your eyes closed might be the best way to enjoy it.
The story, such as it is, is a romantic fantasy that sounds more whimsical on paper than in execution. Alcina is a sorceress who bewitches rugged warrior Ruggiero away from his betrothed Bradamante to her magic island, where she turns her former lovers into animals and trees. If you’ve seen The Lobster, it’s a lot like that but not as upbeat. Bradamante, in classic opera style, pursues Ruggiero with an implausible cross dressing costume which nevertheless fools everyone (at least Wolf Trap Opera’s The Touchstone acknowledged the absurdity of this trope with a “disguise” consisting of a novelty moustache, but Bogart plays it straight). There’s a second love triangle involving Bradamante’s alter ego “Ricciardo,” fellow sorceress Morgana, and her spurned boyfriend Oronte. The romantic elements set up Alcina as a moral allegory of the illusion of unlimited choice for the Tinder era, while the magical elements set it up as a postmodern one of fantasy-turned-hyperreality for the Trump era.
Alas, Bogart takes none of this bait. Her Alcina is low key and reverently period-appropriate, harpsichords and all, a fantasy without fantasy. Her innovations are modest—a couple crashes of thunder, and a few instrumentalists who come up on stage, not all of whom stay on key. The sets, designed by Neil Patel, consist simply of a big cut out circle that changes colors. It is, above all, a star vehicle for the soprano Angela Meade in the title role. This is no coincidence: Bogart’s last production for the WNO, 2013’s Norma, also starred Meade in the title role, and like Alcina, was focused mostly on the singing at the expense of everything else.
Meade is, indeed, great: a diva’s diva with a powerful delivery and broad vocal range, who does anguish better than most. She was nearly upstaged, however, by fellow soprano Ying Fang, who brought the secondary role of Morgana to center stage with stunning clarity that drew bright colors. Her Morgana went from being a mischievous brat to a truly empathetic character thanks to Fang’s acting chops. A pair of mezzos round out the main cast: Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero, who takes a while to warm up and looking Trumpian in gold lame pajamas, but finishes strong, and Daniela Mack as Bradamante/Ricciardo, with an impressively deep register well suited for the split personality role.
British conductor Jane Glover leads the orchestra with confidence and warmth; despite the simplicity of the story and lengthiness of the arias, it’s a rich score with some dramatic turns and minor-key brooding. This Alcina is a production led by and starring almost exclusively women, a rare thing and welcome development in the contemporary opera scene (and an improvement over the scene in Handel’s day, when one of those roles would have gone to a castrated male singer). With such a bevy of talent, it could have been a lot more with just a little more imagination, or maybe just an entirely different opera.
Through Nov. 19 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. $69-$195. 2700 F St. NW.