Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Under the spell of the femme top

Essential Opera revives the gender-bending Alcina

Co-artistic directors Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt.
A powerful sorceress keeps the young man she loves captive on an enchanted island. The man’s fiancée dons a male disguise and comes ashore looking for him. The sorceress’s sister falls hard for said man and won’t take no for an answer. A boy, meanwhile, also arrives on the island looking for his father.
In Essential Opera’s forthcoming concert version of Handel’s opera Alcina, all of these roles are sung by women. Thanks to the co-artistic directors, Maureen Batt and Erin Bardua, one of the most popular cult dyke operas will finally be performed in Toronto this month.
“It’s not like we started off with a clear mandate to create more opportunities for women singers and to focus on the works that are rarely performed in Toronto,” Batt explains. The two friends created the indie opera company out of a desire to perform together as the Countess and Susanna in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, two soprano roles that they agreed would perfectly match their voices. “But we keep hearing in auditions many more women than men. So we thought, let’s program for the voice talent that wowed us and find suitable works to engage them.”
Although there will be no sets or costumes, Batt and Bardua made sure the essential stage direction is in place. “We wrote out in advance where we want the characters to enter and exit for each scene, where in the space and where in the music,” Batt says. “Between our stage direction and on-screen translation, you can’t miss what’s going on,” Bardua adds. Together with music director Vicki St Pierre – who is Bardua’s partner in non-opera life – they made several judicious cuts in the very long opera.
“I won’t be conducting at the performance. I am coaching, prepping the band and ornaments, but no musicians will be in a pit – we are all on stage,” St Pierre explains. She will also sing Bradamante, the forgotten fiancée who drags-up and takes matters into her own hands. Her love Ruggiero, the hunk in captivity (to be sung by the mezzo Vilma Vitols) is more of a passive figure. “He can come across as wimpy, but we won’t be leaning that way” St Pierre says.
Bardua adds, “Ruggiero is the canvass on which you can understand what’s actually going on with the other characters. Everyone else is a little hard to pin down. Bradamante has come in disguise; Alcina’s music is so loving and romantic, but she’s doing something really terrible here, and you can see how tormented Ruggiero is by it. ‘I don’t know what’s real anymore — I’m miserable — I can’t be myself here — and yet I love her, but that’s not love.’ You’re trapped. It’s kind of an abusive relationship that they’re in, and you only see that through him.”
Then there is the dubious happy ending, with the couples reunited, Alcina punished and yet something not quite right about the renewed status quo. “It is not a Disney ending,” St Pierre confirms. Bardua agrees. “It’s the kind of ending where you go . . . Yay? We sing the chorus at the end, establishing that everything is all right, but I’m not sure that it is. We’ll leave it to the audience to decide.”


Fri, May 25, 7:30pm
Trinity-St Paul’s Centre
427 Bloor St W

Thurs, May 31, 7:30pm
Steinmann Mennonite Church
1316 Snyder’s Rd
New Hamburg

Advance tickets $18 at $20 at the door.