by Ed Tapper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 18, 2009


With its recent run of Handel's Alcina, Boston Opera Collaborative continued a fast-growing tradition of offering unusual operatic works to local audiences. Performed on the tiny stage of the Tower Auditorium at the Mass College of Art, BOC's productions are bare-boned, with minimal sets, and costumes directly from the Marshall's selling floor. The musical forces include a group of young, amateur singers, accompanied by a handful of instrumentalists. Yet, whatever it lacks with respect to budget, the company compensates for in sheer chutzpah!

There was a time when Boston, the hub of the American early music movement, was the site of many a Handel revival. In recent seasons, local festivals have focused their energies on excavating more obscure works of less-known, Baroque composers; and our major opera companies have all but snubbed the great18th-century master. Successfully revived by Joan Sutherland in the early 1960's, "Alcina" was one the first Handelian operas to receive a full-scale, modern recording. Sopranos Arleen Auger and Renee F leming followed the trail blazed by "La Stupenda." In spite of Alcina's relative popularity, the opera has enjoyed few productions in the Boston area. This bravura vehicle was an ambitious choice for a company of BOC's size and resources. The production proved entertaining, but technically uneven.

Considering the opera's wildly improbable and convoluted plot, BOC took a light-hearted, satirical approach, which worked nicely. Stage director Andrew Ryker kept the stage action flowing, and seasoned the lengthy, potentially static da capo arias with a number of gags and props, a la Peter Sellars. The audience got all the jokes, chuckling at just the right moments.

The relatively inexperienced singers threw all caution to the wind, and, often, matters of intonation and musical precision along with it. Last Saturday's performance featured Leah Hungerford in the title role. Her rich, soprano instrument shows definite promise. She was occasionally impressive in the lyric moments, but, as was the case with the rest of the cast, less effective in the virtuosic passages. As Morgana, Emily Burr proved an engaging singer and sprightly stage presence. She added some personal touches to her interpretation of "Tornami a vagheggiar," the best-known aria from the opera. In the castrato role of Oberto, Kathryn McKellar sang to the best of her abilities, as did the rest of the enthusiastic cast.

The orchestra was comprised of a six-member chamber ensemble. With only two violins playing key melodic lines, dead-on intonation was an absolute necessity, one which was seldom audible. Music Director Paul Cienniwa conducted from the harpsichord. His playing was expert, and he endowed the score, a veritable, melodic treasure-trove, with suitable tempi throughout.

Boston Opera Collaborative's funky productions often have a great deal to offer Boston opera-lovers who are eager for more unusual, musical fare. To find out more information about the group, visit their website at Boston Opera Collaborative. BOC is certainly to be credited for testing the waters of rarely-performed operas; but with a work of such treacherous difficulty as Alcina, the company was clearly in a bit over its collective head.