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Handel, with care
Philly Fringe 2021: Alter Ego Chamber Opera presents Alcina REVAMPED
Alter Ego Chamber Opera embraces the hybrid model this Fringe Festival, and I don’t just mean in its programming. Hybridity is a good descriptor for the company’s Alcina REVAMPED, which updates Handel’s classic opera to a vaguely 1980s milieu and blends Baroque style with synthpop. Alter Ego also takes the smart step of offering a combination of in-person and streaming performances, recognizing that while most audience members are eager for the thrill of live opera, some are not yet ready to be back in theater spaces.
I intended to catch opening night at the Adrienne Theatre Mainstage, where performances continue through the weekend, but ended up with a digital ticket due to a booking snafu. Rather than protest, I decided to roll with the punches and watch from home. After all, the commute from home office to living room can’t be beat.
In the end, I’m glad I took in the project from this vantage point, although predictable limitations emerged. Shot from the back of the house with a stationary camera, facial expressions and focal points were not always clear, and only about half of the superb onstage band was consistently visible. Audience noise was magnified somewhat, and despite commendably clear sound design, I missed the excitement of hearing unamplified voices in a small space. Rarely do you encounter Handel’s works in an appropriately sized auditorium today, much less a hall like the Adrienne, which seats fewer than 100 people.
Honoring queerness in opera
Despite these technical quibbles, the livestream captured a fine interpretation of a complicated work, with strong singing and admirably individuated characterizations from a game company. The English-language adaptation by Alter Ego artistic director Alize Francheska Rozsnyai puts a queer spin on this story of sorcery, shipwrecks, and triangled love. Although the travesti role of Ruggiero, a noble knight bewitched by Alcina, is usually sung by a mezzosoprano, the character is envisioned here as a woman; Rozsnyai also drops the pretense that Bradamante, Ruggiero’s true love, disguises herself as her own brother to rescue him. They exist instead as a same-sex couple.
Likewise, the bass role of Melisso becomes Melissa—and in a further act of genderqueering, the part is essayed by Balena Canto, the drag persona of Matthew Maisano, a sonorous baritone. Not only does this casting live up to the company’s name and mission, suggesting that all performance is an act of creating alternate personae, it nods smartly at opera’s history of cross-gender casting, which is embedded with queerness. On top of that, Canto/Maisano appears to be having a ball.
Madison Marie McIntosh and Kaitlyn Tierney create a genuinely moving relationship as Ruggiero and Bradamante, and Roznyai, performing under the stage name Alize Francheska, impresses as Morgana. She attacks the melismatic demands of “Tornami a vagheggiar” ("Come Back to Woo Me") with practiced ease and accentuates the besotted naiveté of her character, who believes Bradamante actually loves her.
Although Brenna Markey’s coloratura was somewhat smudgy, she offers a well-formed portrait of Alcina as more than a malicious monster. There is longing and hurt at the core of her character. Countertenor Andrew Egbuchiem’s strong stage presence as Oberto—a child searching for his father, whom Alcina has transformed into a lion—compensates for some vocal hollowness. (The role is usually performed by a boy soprano.)
A boundary-pushing company
Surprisingly, harpsichords and synthesizers blend nicely, and beat designer Roger A. Martinez deserves special praise for skillfully integrating electronic percussion into the recitative. Madeline Whitesell’s direction is somewhat static, and she could have done more to incorporate various elements of 80s culture into the physical production. Handel’s fantastical story cries out for new wave, ballroom culture, late-stage disco, or even punk.
But Alter Ego clearly works well within its constraints, and focuses its energy where it matters the most. I look forward to discovering more of what this boundary-pushing company has to offer, both inside the theater and on the computer screen.
What, When, Where
Alcina REVAMPED. By George Frideric Handel, as adapted by Alize Rozsnyai, directed by Madeline Whitesell. Alter Ego Chamber Opera. $30. In-person performances through September 26, 2021, at the Adrienne Theater Mainstage, 2030 Sansom Street. A streaming version is also available on demand through October 4, 2021. (215) 413-1318 or Fringearts.com.
Proof of full vaccination is required to attend in-person performances. Masks must be worn for the duration of the performance. Seating is not socially distanced.
The Adrienne Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. The streaming version of Alcina REVAMPED is captioned.
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