Mercer Opera premieres Handel's 'Alcina' in Middle Georgia

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Mercer University’s production of “Alcina” is the first time that this Handel opera has ever been performed in Middle Georgia, according to Mercer Opera’s music director, Dr. Richard Kosowski.

Handel’s “Alcina” is an opera about a woman named Bradamante seeking her lost lover Ruggiero on an enchanted island ruled by the sorceress Alcina. Conflicts arise in the form of amnesia and miscommunication, and the characters must decide on the value of love and commitment.

In “Alcina,” the singing, acting, dancing, music and set all came together to form a cohesive story that unfolded over three acts.
“It’s a beautiful opera,” said Kosowski. “It’s one that’s rarely heard and from what we can tell, this is the first time a Handel opera has been locally produced in the state of Georgia, and we’re just really happy that we got to do it, that we have the students who can sing it and play it.”

As in many performances, the quality of the singing, acting and dancing depended on the individual, but the overall presentation was a thing to behold. Regardless of ability, the cast was entertaining. Sometimes the audience was in awe, sometimes they were laughing, but throughout the entirety of the opera, they stayed engaged in the events on stage.

The orchestra played a large part in that. The music added a depth to the opera that sometimes spoke more than the words being sung. There was also a twinge of familiarity to it. Handel was a Baroque composer who is best known today for his oratorio “Messiah.” His compositional style is identifiable in both his oratorios and operas and was especially recognizable in “Alcina.

From the beginning, I was worried about understanding what was happening onstage. I had never seen an opera before, and you can’t exactly turn on captions for a live performance. In some cases, I found that it was a little hard to follow.  For example, Alcina had some places where she hit incredible notes and they sounded beautiful,  but the text was indecipherable. However, overall, my worries were unfounded. If a word were unclear the first time, chances were that they would sing it again… and again. And if all else failed, their facial expressions were a good indicator for what was going on.

The expressions, body language and placement of characters in the performance also helped to clarify how the plot was unfolding. Charismatic, confident characters such as Morgana seemed to take up the entire stage in exuberance while uncertain, worried characters such as Oberto seemed to stay in a small, contained space. And then, as their circumstances changed, so did their use of the stage.

A prime example of this would be the way in which Alcina changed positions throughout the performance. In the beginning, she was a powerful ruler of the island, surrounded by her courtesans and dancers, seated on her throne at the top and center of the stage, but in Act II, her position in power became more precarious. Near the end of Act II, she was literally perched on a small platform surrounded by a few girls from her court. In Act III, she kneeled on the steps that lead to where her throne once was, and ultimately she became powerless and invisible when the urn, the source of magic for both Alcina and Morgana, is destroyed.
Visually, the performance was compelling. The stage of Fickling Hall was subtly transformed through a simple but elegant set that framed the action in earth tones. This contributed to the sense of being somewhere wild and remote. The set also contrasted well with the colors of the costumes – vivid reds and blues for Alcina and Morgana, jewel tones for the courtesans, pastels for the dancers and a mix of hues for the enchanted creatures and foreigners. The final layer of this visual, the lighting, was subtle like the set, with the exception of moments such as the breaking of the urn, which was accompanied by a blackout and bursts of light flashing like lightning.

I enjoyed my first opera experience: it was new, it was complex, and it was different from any other show I’ve seen. If anything, I walked away from my first opera with a greater appreciation for vocal chords, a deep gratitude for plot summaries and an even deeper gratitude for intermissions.