Four magnificent singers are put on starry-eyed display in this energetic recording of a live performance of the 1999 Paris Opéra production of Handel's "Alcina". Each delivers their individual stamp in some of Handel's most powerful and beautiful arias. The irony is that the basis upon which these emotions pour forth in such majestic torrents is actually a fanciful tale about a sorceress, Alcina, who lures men to her island only to turn them into animals when they fall in love with her. Needless to say, things get complicated when Alcina truly does fall in love with Ruggiero, who already has a fiancée, Bradamante, who disguises herself as his brother but not before Alcina's sister, Morgana, also falls in love with Ruggiero. Even though it sounds like a convoluted Shakespearean comedy, Handel took this plot quite seriously and filled his work with sonorous set pieces that tear down the characters' vulnerability in often ravishing fashion.
In her first foray into Handel, superstar soprano Renée Fleming cuts a very passionate, sometimes imperious figure in the title role. Her high point is Alcina's intense Act II aria, "Ah! Mio cor", where upon being abandoned by Ruggiero, she lets out an aria of heartbreaking poignancy but then gives way to her regal bearing and plots her regal act of vengeance. Having just seen Fleming in the Stephen Wadsworth production of Handel's "Rodelinda" at the Metropolitan Opera last week, I was impressed at how she harnessed her famous trilling to fit the contours of her put-upon character. With Alcina, Fleming embodies a character more to her passionate singing style, her coloratura resplendent without undue ornamentation. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham does a "pants" role as Ruggiero and plays the lover with conviction. She sings her Act III aria, "Sta nell'Ircana", with a romantic openness befitting the bewildered character. Soprano Natalie Dessay handles the soubrettish role of Morgana with fiery virtuosity, certainly on full display in her Act I aria, "Tornami a vagheggiar". Contralto Kathleen Kuhlmann carries the vocal heft and executes the diction required to be persuasive as the disguised fiancée, a smaller role but given a nice showcase with the Act I aria, "È gelosia". The inevitable capper is the climactic trio performance of Fleming, Graham and Kuhlmann on "Non è amor, nè gelosia", as powerful a melding of supreme voices as you are likely to hear on an opera recording. Much of the credit is due to the estimable William Christie conducting the expert playing of Les Arts Florissants. This is a splendid recording with a minimum of stage and background noise. Strongly recommended.