Clad in medieval armor on the Eastvold Auditorium stage, Erika Hagen looks worried. She’s a girl dressed as a guy, pretending to be in love with a sorceress so she can secretly rescue her fiance, and acting out a medieval story while singing 18th-century opera.
But it’s all in a day’s work for Pacific Lutheran University opera chairman James Brown, who’s conducting the student production of Handel’s “Alcina” this weekend, complete with period-instrument accompaniment and full staging.
“(Baroque opera) teaches a lot,” says Brown, while wrangling straggling cast members and rounding up the animal masks used by the opening chorus. “It teaches (students) to connect more deeply with the text — singing recitative is a huge challenge for them. Then there’s singing in Italian, none of them know that, although we have a great libretto here. And there’s the style, all that florid coloratura. If they can sing this, they can sing anything.”
All the same, “Alcina” is a rather tough way to dive into opera as a fledgling singer. It has all the technical difficulty of Handel’s vocal music — such as the endless fast passages in “The Messiah” — with the added unfamiliarity of baroque affect and a plot that’s Shakespearean in its cross-dressed complexity. Bradamente (Hagen) is a damsel who’s forever rescuing her fiance from dramatic situations. In “Alcina,” he’s trapped on a magical island under the love-spell of the sorceress Alcina, whom Bradamente has to outwit (along with the sorceress’ sister Morgana) by disguising herself as a gallant knight, egged on by tutor Melisso. As the young cast of 30 sings through their first full run-through, Brown’s staging begins to tell the story: a writhing, sensuous chorus of part-humans, part-beasts behind an underwater-lit scrim, a golden throne, fairy-tale costumes.
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But stagecraft isn’t just about sets and lights in baroque opera. It’s often about taking commonplace 18th-century musical techniques (like endless repetition) and making them understandable and dramatic for modern audiences.
“The da capo, for instance,” says Brown, referring to the baroque tradition of singing an aria, then repeating the first half to drum in the melody and show off the singer’s chops. “How do you make that dramatically viable with all the repeats? As the director, you give the singer lots of ideas, but ultimately it’s up to them.”
Another musical learning curve is period performance style, something that is helped by having a quintet of faculty musicians accompanying the show on harpsichord and baroque strings. The light accompaniment and intimate, recently renovated Eastvold Hall also give the young voices a space that supports rather than challenges.
For the audience, it’s a chance to hear a beautiful work that’s not often performed by professional companies. English subtitles will be projected over the stage.
Brown directs a student opera every year, rotating between baroque, standard 19th-century and contemporary repertoire. “Alcina” is the third baroque opera he’s done in his 10 years there.
Does anyone ever wonder why they can’t just do “La Boheme” instead?
“Sometimes,” admits Brown, smiling. “But in this business, it’s better to learn to deal with all kinds of genres. That’s more like the real world.”