Alcina takes a few modern twists

Over the weekend, the opera Alcina had almost everything a spectator could want: flashy costumes and scenery, a magical realm, sorcery, swashbuckling, and even cross-dressing. Based on an epic poem and produced by the School of Music, the opera was written by George Frideric Handel, but the libretto, or text of the plot, has no known author.

Alcina is a work not unlike a Shakespeare comedy in which lovers are crossed, identities are mistaken, and occasional hilarity ensues. The story follows Bradamante (junior Olivio Custodio) as she arrives at the island ruled by the evil sorceress Alcina (senior Christine Lyons) in search of her fiancé. Bradamante is posing as Ricciardo, her brother, but from the first few hilarious scenes, it becomes clear that Bradamante is much more the scorned lover than the brave knight. As she awkwardly avoids the flirtatious advances of Alcina’s sister Morgana (senior Eve Miedel), she manages to find her lover — in Alcina’s arms.

Ruggiero (senior Emily Righter) is deep under Alcina’s spell; he cannot even remember his love for Bradamante and thinks only of Alcina. You read that parenthetical correctly; Ruggiero is played by a female whereas in the time of Handel the part was played by a castrato, a male vocalist who had been castrated before puberty to preserve his higher register. Luckily for its male students, the School of Music decided to cast a woman in the role.

The opera, like any production, has been interpreted differently throughout the years, and in the School of Drama’s presentation the scenery and costuming made for an interesting mix of modern and traditional with a tilt towards the modern. The performers wore a sort of jazzed-up version of the clothes you would find in pre-Revolutionary France. The fuzzy baubles on the sleeves and colorful fur-lined cuffs seemed too bright to link the costumes to any particular time period.

The scenery, too, offered an interesting interpretation. In Alcina’s world, almost everything is under her spell, and so the palace appears beautiful and the island appears lush, when in reality the palace is run-down and the island is a desert. To capture the false finery of Alcina’s abode, the scenery is affixed with normal household objects (brooms, coat hangers, pie plates) all painted a shiny silver; it is both flashy and fake at the same time.

The opera features a modern flair, which seems to be calculated to attract an audience of Carnegie Mellon students. The scenes where Ruggiero and Alcina openly make advances on one another are quite burlesque, the audience members may find themselves thinking “Whoa, where is that hand going?” And many of the small touches, like the expressive face of Bradamante as she grows angrier at her lover, or the melodramatic swoon of Alcina as she attempts to sway Ruggiero, serve to make the opera truly humorous.

Yet for whatever reason, the one thing Alcina lacked on Friday night was a full house. This isn’t to say the show was dead, but there was a familiar pattern in the audience, where about 50 percent were students and 50 percent were older patrons. Perhaps it was the frigid weather that kept students from trudging the 10 minutes over to Purnell, or perhaps the Italian (although there were subtitles) scared them away.

Whatever the cause, it seems that students are willing to wait 45 minutes for a bus to the Waterfront to watch a mediocre spectacle like Marie Antoinette, but might neglect the performances put together by so many of their fellow students. The answer for breaking the opera ice could be classes like Passport, offered by the School of Architecture, that seeks to engage students in cultural and educational experiences in Pittsburgh. One student at Alcina Friday night, Joseph Liu, a senior in computer science and mathematics, said he loved the opera, but admitted he was there for his Passport class. “You go to artsy events and then you write about them,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

And so was the opera, in addition to being extremely accessible to a student audience. But it’s too late to get more students to Alcina; we’ll just have to cross our fingers for next time.