New York City Opera turned to an old friend, George Frideric Handel, to open its new season. The company has won steady acclaim for its cycle of Handel operas, and Francesca Zambello’s new staging of this complicated saga of a lovestruck sorceress featured a typically fresh, generally accomplished young cast negotiating the stylistic challenges of the music with impressive fortitude.
Christine Goerke, a soprano who made a splash in the same composer’s “Rinaldo” with the company two seasons back, performed the demanding title role. Alcina reigns over a peculiar personal fiefdom — the lush scenery is provided by ex-lovers whom she has transformed into trees and animals. Choreographer Sean Curran supplied effective sweeping-and-posing movements for these unfortunates, represented by shirtless men in shredded pantaloons who recalled Matthew Bourne’s swans.
Alcina’s latest plaything, Ruggiero, is being hunted by his betrothed, Bradamante, who disguises herself as a fellow, furthering the possibilities for romantic complication. She-as-he has soon bewitched Alcina’s sister Morgana, irking Morgana’s paramour Oronte. There is lots of fuming and lamenting.
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The interlocking storyline is never as bewildering as it may sound, since baroque opera allows each character ample time to reveal the current state of his or her emotions. (City Opera trimmed the score considerably, to the presumed dismay of Handel completists and presumed relief of the rest of the audience.)
The designs for Zambello’s production, typically for the company, mixed styles haphazardly. Martin Pakledinaz’s lush costumes bespoke centuries past, while Neil Patel’s sets gleamed in a more contemporary manner. Zambello seems partial these days to glass-encased objects; last season’s “Troyens” at the Met featured caged trees — an image you might think more apt for “Alcina,” come to think of it — and this new “Alcina” contained caged columns. Go figure. Generally fluid, the physical production was marred by overuse of a massive wall of stone and a scrim depicting same; best not to literally entomb a form of opera that is static to begin with.
The singing is where the action is in Handel operas. Goerke, whose opening-night performance garnered mixed notices, was in secure, often thrilling voice by the final performance of the run. The sound was rich, round and sizable; she was particularly impressive in Alcina’s long aria of heartbreak, flecked with rage, at the discovery of her lover’s betrayal. Katharine Goeldner was convincingly cast as Ruggiero, and delivered the role’s dazzling fioriture with admirable polish and security in her small but focused mezzo. Lauren Skuce and Keith Jameson both had impressive moments as the comic secondary couple.
“Alcina” was followed in the repertory by a revival of “Lucia di Lammermoor” notable for the strikingly apparent pregnancy of the soprano making her City Opera debut in the title role. James Robinson’s new production was on the dreary side, with Christine Jones’ abstract sets dominated by two massive chunks of what appeared to be corrugated charcoal. Scott Zielinki’s vibrant lighting scene was called on to supply much of the emotional scene-setting.
As the expectant Lucia — the singer’s state was persuasively worked into the proceedings — Jennifer Welch-Babidge scored a triumph both for her impassioned, skillful singing and the dramatic potency of her acting. The mad scene was unusually riveting. Welch-Babidge spun out ornate runs of delicate coloratura and was painfully convincing as a young woman assailed alternately by blissful delusions and tormenting visions, clutching seductively, desperately at the agonized onlookers. Jorge Antonio Pita, a strong tenor sounding a bit worn at the top of the voice, gave stolid support as Enrico.
City Opera’s orchestra, under George Manahan for “Lucia” and Daniel Beckwith for “Alcina,” played with almost equal vigor and precision in two divergent styles.