Suffering Made Art – Händel’s Alcina

– by Lankin –

If I am allowed to talk about Alcina, I tend to get wordy. This is why I thought it would be a good thing to make a separate post about the opera, the music, and the characters, and detach it from the review I wrote about the performance at the festival in Aix-en-Provence.

let me start to explain

 “Let me tell you what is so perfect about Alcina, ….”

The set-up

Alcina is based on a slice taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, an epic poem set in the loose context of the Reconquista. The plot was modified and expanded by an unknown librettist. There are notable differences in the opera: for example Melissa is given a sex change and the fact that Ruggiero is a Saracen who will eventually convert to Christianity is never mentioned.

Ruggiero is a knight, busy alongside his spouse Bradamante participating in numerous valorous activities, when he arrives on Alcina’s island. (In fact, Bradamante’s hippogriff, which he was riding, chose the island for a stopover.)

Although warned beforehand, Ruggiero can’t resist Alcina’s art of seduction. She is a sorceress. She likes men and likes to keep them for her divertissement. As soon as she gets bored with them, she turns them into additional decoration for her enchanted island – as trees, animals, or even stones. By the time of Ruggiero’s arrival, she has a very nice collection. In fact, her island seems to be something like the mythological equivalent of the Bermuda triangle (much like Circe’s in Greek mythology.)

However, Alcina finds Ruggiero different from the men she has claimed and used before, and develops real feelings for him. Things become complicated when the belligerent Bradamante, also Ruggiero’s sister-in-arms, and several concerned people appear, all demanding Ruggiero to reconsider his life choices. This is when the opera starts.

Let me digress – just once, I promise.

Sacred love and profane love

Are you familiar with this piece of art?


(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is called Sacred love conquers profane love and it was painted by an artist called Giovanni Baglione. He painted several versions.

The piece’s history is both interesting and hilarious, but it has a somewhat bitter ending to it. Baglione painted it in revenge to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. This is Caravaggio’s artwork, for comparison, called Amor vincit omnia (Love conquers all).


(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

You can probably begin to guess at a glance that Caravaggio was less than pleased. Baglione copies Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique without its meaningfulness and uses it for effect, with the little Cupid lying sprawled on the ground and, on top of it, you note the satyr-like figure to the left in Baglione’s painting? This is Caravaggio, most clearly.

Baglione’s painting caused Caravaggio to write a furious hate piece – in verse form, because Caravaggio had style and it was infinitely more easily memorable – so graphic that it would stand out as a YouTube comment nowadays. (If you are interested, be brave and google “Gioan Bagaglia”.) As as result, Caravaggio was sentenced for libel and put under house arrest.

The two paintings and their history sum up the plot of Alcina quite nicely. Because what really is the opera all about? It is about sacred love, as in marriage, and all kinds of coded love that are approved of by society, versus the profane love, the libido, the animalistic side in all of us.

Caravaggio was the wild guy, yet his concept of love wasn’t accepted. Instead it was modified, mocked, and put into the strictures of what was accepted by society back then. (And frankly, society hasn’t changed that much in the meantime.) Ironically, Baglione turned out to be Caravaggio’s first biographer after the latter’s death, and, surprisingly, he was not entirely a bad one. Yet his attempt to capture, to systemise Caravaggio’s work can be seen as another effort at measuring something that defies and escapes society’s standards – genius this time – by the very same rulebook. It is the same conflict all over again.

“The Opera goes no farther than the breaking of Alcina’s Enchantment and contains an agreeable Allegory […] The Character of Alcina’s Beauty, and Inconstancy proves the short Duration of all sublimary Enjoyments, which are lost as soon as attain’d […]“

– The Universal Spectator, London, 5th of July 1735 Source: Wikipedia

This historic document is interesting in many ways. Among them, it’s clear that the journalist clearly perceived it as an allegory. Yet isn’t it also interesting that Alcina is accused of “inconstancy” when, during the plot, it is rather a widespread phenomenon, and Ruggiero is the more unfaithful one? It concludes with a moral bottom-line that is summed up in Händel’s final ensemble and chorus. Yet it has a less than subtle lecturing tone to it. In short, the review could have been written by Melisso, the voice of society’s moral consensus. (It is as limited as imagining leaving a synopsis of Rigoletto to Sparafucile. It would go roundabout like this: “Daft old fool, sorry about your daughter, and thanks for the money.” Or, as a moral baseline: “If you want to get things done, do them yourself; don’t waste your money on shady pimps and cut-throats.”)

Händel’s conclusion (and that of the unknown librettist) was the same that can be derived from looking at the Caravaggio v Baglione mudfight from a historic distance: the “profane” love draws short. (Of course, it does likewise in Ariosto’s original as well, yet taking Händel’s opera Julius Caesar, respect for originals or historic truths even couldn’t have been the only drawback.)

The libretto that Händel used has a happy ending, one that conforms with society. It still feels like a tragedy, and more so because of Händel’s music.

There is hardly any way to put up with the massive force exerted by society. Händel’s Alcina leaves its heroine a broken woman. There is no lie, no deceit in her behaviour. All of “society” pretend, dress up, and lie at some point – she never does. Her feelings are always poignantly real, culminating in Mi restano le lagrime (Only tears remain for me).

A shift in focus

I love Händel and his music. Why I particularly love Alcina so much is related to his exquisite sculpting of characters in what is maybe his finest opera. The shades and pastel tones he adds are not even in the libretto in the first place – a libretto of unknown source and solid but not outstanding quality, with an originally simple moral, that was used before by Riccardo Broschi.

In Händel’s Alcina, two women fight over the favour of the male protagonist, Ruggiero. (Remember when choosing Aphrodite over Hera and Athena was a bad idea indeed for Paris and turned a whole empire into ashes? The trope isn’t exactly new.)


Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgment of Paris (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Whether for Paris’s choice, or in Caravaggio’s and Bagioline’s paintings, the personnage is of course mythological and thus, stands for a concept, it has an abstract quality to it. It is used to derive and teach a moral lesson – one that Paris defies, and one that Händel is opposed to and refuses to accept as well. (Let me put this as a presumption here; I will reason later why I think this is the case.)

What is unique to the libretto and equally, to Händel’s version, is the focus on Alcina as a main character. She isn’t painted as a villain only.

Händel’s music puts the focus entirely on Alcina’s character development, and Ruggiero’s mostly internal struggle. The rest of the busy plot – cross-dressing, magic, misunderstandings, strategies – is not the main attraction; the plot twists mostly serve to show yet another side of Alcina and Ruggiero.

Händel’s characterisations

In Alcina, Bradamante stands for the sacred, the lawful side, the one representing the accepted system of morals and reason. Alcina’s character, however, represents the profane, the irrational, animalistic, and also vulnerable aspect of love, the kind of love that resulted in Troy being reduced to rubble. (In the opera, contrarily, the sacred part of love turns Alcina’s realm into ruins, and I always wonder if Händel thought of that parallel.)

By Bradamante’s side, the author of the libretto places a supporting crew of “voices of reason.” There is a little boy deploring his father’s loss, Oberto, voicing the effects the actions of Alcina have on others, on third parties. (Imagine you’re on a date with your lover, and a boy appears, accusing your date of stealing his father. It is even more bitter if the magic is stripped from it.)

As neither Bradamante nor Oberto suffice for getting Ruggiero back on the respectable track, they are joined by Melisso, Ruggiero’s old tutor. Händel must have taken real pains to write an aria as utterly, well, grounded, as Melisso’s Pensa a chi geme d’amor piagata (Think of her who mourns her wounded love). It is repetitive, never really taking off to flight, the chromatic notes adding a pressing, urging tone that makes the listener as uneasy as Ruggiero. Of course, this is intentional. It is a lecture. That the piece is even remotely enjoyable, I think, is due to the fact that Händel didn’t want to punish the singer.

(Here the Melisso is Wojtek Gierlach.)

For comparison: For Pensa a chi geme, Händel reused some of the musical material from the aria Siam prossimi al porto (We are close to the harbour) from Rinaldo.

siam prossimi pensa chi

See what else Händel could evolve the same motive into if he wanted? (Christophe Dumaux is singing it in this recording.)

Not even Bradamante, Ruggiero’s legitimate spouse, is alluring in any way, albeit sometimes she can be quite convincing. She isn’t meant to be. Händel draws a strict line between the “sacred love” and the “profane love” side; you can hear it throughout the piece. If anything, Bradamante’s arias are comparable to Amadigi’s, in the opera of the same name. She is the natural warrior, Ruggiero is clearly not, at least for the duration of the plot. As a mezzo or contralto, one would more likely choose an aria from Amadigi than one from Alcina as an encore. Bradamante’s arias are good, but not show-stopper material. Considering that this is Händel, it must be deliberately so.

It is very easy to realise on which side – profane or sacred love – Händel’s sympathies lie.

Alcina in turn is probably the most fantastic soprano part ever written by Händel. It is like his cantata Lucrezia blown up to operatic proportions, highlighting every stage and the emotional state of a woman betrayed by society. For Lucrezia, this ends in her suicide, for Alcina, either in death or in sinking into insignificance and solitude, depending on the staging. What is the most fantastic aria? Ombre pallide? Mi restano le lagrime? Ah! mio cor? It is close to impossible to pick a favourite.

Morgana is essentially a part of the couple that serves as a well-appreciated comic relief in between. Her counterpart is Oronte, and their parts both go beyond the usual limits of what are, in their essence, buffo parts with a perceptible foundation in the commedia dell’arte.

So where is Ruggiero in this? He gets a late start, and he is clearly not quite a hero. How do heroes start off? Presti omai l’Egizia terra (Today, all the land of Egypt shall lay palms at the victor’s feet). Now that is a hero! Ruggiero? Not so much.

Just look at the face-off that Händel arranges between the two lead characters: Alcina sings an irresistibly sweet first aria, the Dì, cor mio (Tell me, dear heart, how much I love you), depicting a seductive and complete woman, which is put right next to – nothing at first. Ruggiero has his own voice yet to find. Belatedly, he is starting off with Di te mi rido, semplice stolto (I am laughing about you, you foolish simpleton), affirming to his spouse in disguise the conviction that Alcina is his exclusively. The possessive mentality in this is so out of place concerning his late start and muteness in front of Alcina we have witnessed before that it shows off a – to put it kindly – youthful, easy mindset. Alcina puts everything into seducing him, and maintaining the seduction; he does not even care so much about feelings – at the most, he is flattered and enjoys the exciting game at this point – and it’s all in the music! Alcina and Ruggiero could not be more contradicting.

It continues along the same pattern: Alcina’s Sì, son quella (Yes, I am the same) is faced with Ruggiero’s La bocca vaga (The lovely mouth) – just as the Di te mi rido not aimed at Alcina, and conveying the same thought.

Next, Ruggiero has one lap to catch up: his arioso Qual portento (What magic can have returned the light of reason) and one of his gems, Mi lusinga il dolce affetto (My tender passion bewitches me). There, he is fondly considering the possibility of Bradamante really being who she claims to be – apparently, he only has the vaguest memory of his spouse in his magically enhanced partial dementia. The music is sublime, however, it doesn’t have the immediate sexual allure of any of Alcina’s arias. Allegedly (I still have to find the piece), some phrases of the Mi lusinga are borrowed from a cantata by Telemann – a sacred work.

Next is the Mio bel tesoro (My cherished love) in which he pretends to love Alcina while adding aside-notes to Bradamante saying his love for Alcina is all a lie. In comparison with the Mi lusinga, this is a tedious slow-down piece of music with by-the-book lines, making it appear a farce entirely. I don’t think Ruggiero is really falling out of love. He appears forced into doing something he does not want to do. Händel’s music is a masterpiece there, the sole two recorders echoing the desperate attempts of Ruggiero who fails to convince either of the two women, the short interrupted phrases making the loss of what to say next palpable.

The fakeness of the Mio bel tesoro becomes even more apparent as Alcina’s Ah! mio cor (Ah! my heart) is next. The aria is heavy, focusing on Alcina’s suffering and grief. The ascending lines in the strings resemble a strenuous, slow walk upstairs to the gallows, one foot taking the step, the second dragged after it on every step in a last effort.

Verdi prati (Green meadows), in which Ruggiero’s nostalgic lingering on his own Paradise Lost is paired with the tour-de-force piece of Ah! Ruggiero crudel/Ombre pallide (Oh! cruel Ruggiero/Pale shadows). The instrumentation of this piece alone is genius, illustrating Alcina’s abandonment at the “Vi cerco, e v’ascondete?” (I search for you, but you are hiding?) , when she is solely accompanied by a Colla parte instrument (a violin in the case of Alcina), giving the voice an out-of-this-world quality, as if it was a shade of its former self – a similar trick that Donizetti used many years later in the famous mad scene of Lucia di Lammermoor (at the “Veranno a te sull’aure …”). Händel doesn’t get enough credit for creating the first consistent mad scenes in operatic history, I find.

After the Ombre pallide, there is one brief attempt by Alcina to get Ruggiero back. To me, the Ma quando tornerai (But when you will return) that reduces her to a vengeful but powerless ex-lover in tone and bearing, proves that it has come to pass what she fears the most – her magic indeed has waned.

Next is Ruggiero again, showcasing his knighthood or at least huntsmanship, for once, in the Sta nell’Ircana (In her stony lair in Hyrcania). The piece has the feeling of a mid-opera bis for Carestini – in German you would call the same a “Kofferarie” – an aria like various Vo solcando’s and Broschi’s Son qual nave that singers took along with them and sang them in any opera because they were a sure show-stopper – no matter whether they fitted into the plot. My theory that it really doesn’t fit in particularly well into Alcina is corroborated by the fact that no one I ever heard of could make head nor tail of the metaphor illustrated in the aria, which can be summed up as “A tigress might hesitate to leave her cubs and attack the hunter, but beware when she decides to” with a strange turn to the topic of love in the end.

The aria is written in perfect Italian/Neapolitan style, which was all the rage back then. It just does not fit in organically with the rest at all; it always entertains me, and I love it much the same way as I love Richard Strauß’ Di rigori, a wonderful Italian aria in the middle of his Rosenkavalier, which of course follows an entirely different trail of musical vocabulary.

Händel doesn’t leave the audience off the hook, never leaving the focus on Alcina’s destiny for long. The piece closes with Alcina’s Mi restano le lagrime (Only tears remain for me), a closing ensemble piece and a choir in a painfully shallow good mood, rendering it entirely surreal. It doesn’t feel right; it feels like partying on Alcina’s grave. Apparently, Händel felt similarly about it, as he chose to omit it in later versions.

The half-hearted closing ensemble and choir, the utterly heartbreaking Mi restano beforehand – both cause me to believe that Händel wanted to leave the listener exactly like this: unable to be happy about the alleged happy ending. By the end, everyone is sharing the sweet melancholy of Ruggiero’s Verdi prati, the regret of something irrevocably broken as all things are returned to normal.

Why Ruggiero is so hard to like

The main reason why it is hard to feel warmth towards Ruggiero is not even that he causes the downfall of Alcina – a character we empathize with – but that he is a very passive character. In general, this is something we maybe would endure if this was a female, but then it is hard to think of any female character in any opera who is so passive.

The Sta nell’Ircana left out for now, all his arias are either static or ill-tempered in an immature sort of way. Alcina creates an island. She seduces, she loves. Ruggiero … well he pours sugar over the table. (This is not Händel, but Katie Mitchell’s staging, agreed – yet it is pretty hard to come up with one thing that Ruggiero actually actively does.)

table manners

Of course, this passivity is due to the libretto, a carefully carved-out slice from which all of Ruggiero’s heroic deeds are excluded. (He slays a wolf-riding giant to gain Alcina’s favour to start with.) The librettist decided to omit the frame, leaving Ruggiero doomed largely to passivity.

I assume that the Baroque listeners knew the context, so it didn’t need to be mentioned, but also it would add yet another contrast: that of Ruggiero the hero to that of the Ruggiero-in-leisure, and draw focus to Ruggiero’s character instead of Alcina.

“But woman is naturally of less strength and dignity than man, for the agent is always more honorable than the patient.”

I am quoting the famous misogynist St Augustine here. (Considering that he is a still-revered theologian of the Catholic church, it gets me wondering what he thought about Jesus who “gave his back to the smiters”.)

For Alcina, the cliché gets turned on its head, yet effemination is pictured like a disease that befalls Ruggiero.

On each once manly arm, now glittering
With the bright hoop, a bracelet fair is bound.

– Ariosto, Orlando Furioso

We might not be misogynists, but we might as well feel that inaction and hesitation doesn’t necessarily help to make a character endearing.

A glorious incarnation

Händel makes Alcina about more than just a sorceress whose power is fading, more than about just any pre-menopausal cougar with a liking for young men. The conflict between sacred love and profane love opens a variety of possible associations and ways in which the story can be seen.

I like to think that Händel was even conscious of this complexity. He had almost zero class-related snobbishness – the royalties from his Messiah he entirely donated to an orphanage. Also, his quite illustrious circle of friends didn’t only comprise straight males. It is not entirely wild to assume that he thought of more than the obvious when he read the libretto for the first time, or when he composed Alcina. His Alcina is so much more, it is about all the love that cannot be, all love that best not speak its name, across barriers constructed by society, of race, class, and gender.

Singers are said to have an “incarnation role” – as maybe Isolde or Kundry were for Varnay, or Violetta or Tosca were for Callas, even if both artists seem to defy a simple classification like this by their sheer complexity.

For me, it feels as if Alcina was Händel’s incarnation role; he put everything in there, creating what is probably the most sublime and demanding role of the baroque operas, and maybe the one that tells us the most about what kind of person Händel was. His unique empathy, especially for his female characters, his awareness of and averseness to suffering – it’s all in there.

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh — but smile no more.

– Edgar Allan Poe, The Haunted Mansion

Featured image: John William Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, Wikimedia Commons

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