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"Alcina": All You Need is Love

By Don Fineberg


“Alcina”: All You Need is Love

Love can be like light. We encounter it. We see its effects, its functions, and appreciate its necessity. Who though among us truly understands it, or better yet, would venture to explain it? Just as physicists explore light, poets have yet to exhaust their efforts to capture and articulate the many facets of love. What happens when we add music and an engaging narrative?  These facets come alive and we have an opera! W.B. Yates famously said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” The magic of Alcina will awaken your senses.

Search the Internet for “love and opera.” You get 41,900,000 hits in 0.45 seconds. That is almost 42 million in less than half a second. After reviewing them all, just kidding … who would want to conduct this survey? That’s not surfing the web, that’s drowning in it.  Instead, let’s go back to the opera.

You walk into the theater; you’re handed a program filled with notes; you find your seat and settle in. And even before the lights dim, you find yourself on the edge of that seat, the subliminal edge of your own expectations.  As, for example, if the sound of the harpsichord delights you, even before the first aria, your positive experience begins. If, on the contrary, this instrument feels like we are in music history 101 you will miss moments of absolute inspiration and delight. The musical Hamilton takes advantage of our cultural associations to a musical lineage. Seemingly old fashioned music accompanies King George’s admonition to the colonies, You’ll be Back, or Thomas Jefferson’s What did I Miss? that has echoes of early jazz and hints of rap music to come.  What was old has become renewed. It works for Hamilton and it works for Alcina. What your mind expects and what your heart anticipates go on to inform your experience.

Handel composes for our experience.  He wrote for the Broadway of his day. He was beloved in his lifetime. Here’s why: Handel’s music has powerful effects. Here’s how:  For starters, Alcina’s arias have a da capo format, sometimes described as A-B-A. The repeat of the first stanza follows the second. This repetition emphasizes the impact of an aria and allows us to absorb the emotional message of the music not merely the words of the text. At times, Handel uses this structure to emphasize the mixed feelings of the character, as in Alcina’s aria Ah! Mio Cor! She expresses her despondent feelings in the first verse turning to her outrage in the second and then back to despair. Alcina suffers excruciating ambivalence in response to rejection.  The opera frequently demonstrates just how complex and deep love can be.

To further enhance the emotional power of the arias, Handel often employs melisma, a group of notes sung to one syllable of text. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the music is the message. Handel also composes ritornellos, brief musical passages, to highlight the impact of a particular aria’s emotional color. In opera, nuanced and powerful feelings accompany its sights and sounds. Handel’s opera invites us to dive into them all. Especially, when it comes to love.

As Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in another magical place filled with fantasy, as well as separated and reunited lovers, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”. Alcina’s complex plot certainly endorses this idea. The course of true love is a bumpy ride indeed!

Alcina’s rough ride of love is made even rougher by the fantastic mental journey of its protagonist, Ruggiero. As director David Alden summarizes, “this is the story of a vulnerable fellow, living in a world of dreams with a fantasy lover, with people trying to save him, and shock him back to reality.” Alcina was the last of Handel’s “enchantress” operas. It has erotic elements. It has serious themes. And it has comedic, fantastic components. Alcina anticipates a television series like “Ally McBeal.” The Emmy Awards nominated it in both drama and comedy categories, because of its “new” synthesis as a “dramedy.” Opera anticipates this mixture by more than 250 years!

Let’s consider several aspects of love incorporated into the opera.

Persistence: True love endures. The audience of Handel’s era would have been familiar with the myth of Ruggiero and Bradamante. The island of Alcina would need no explanation.  Instead of “pants” roles, the castrati “stars” of his day would sing the roles of the tragic enchantress, the mesmerized knight under her spell and his cross-dressing fiancée.

Alcina evolved. Still, the idea that a genuine lover would persist remains as true today as ever. Bradamante’s pursuit of Ruggiero becomes all the more heroic and romantic because it takes a long time and encounters so many dangers. In today’s world, even without the dangers, we recognize the theme —   Romantic love can blossom after a long pursuit. Sometimes, the eager lover has been there all along, as a classmate or a lab partner or a fellow volunteer at the homeless shelter or a co-chair of an opera guild.

Love at First Sight: In the opening scene of Act I, Morgana, Alcina’s sister, with less power to enchant, meets Bradamante and falls instantly in love with her in the guise of her brother, Ricciardo. This may seem ridiculous, but no more so than the glimpse of someone “across a crowded room,” as the popular song describes. The well-known “love at first sight” phenomenon gives support to the myth of “Cupid’s arrows” acknowledged by Morgana. Handel’s audience would especially find her note of his “noble face” completely credible. As we shall see in this Alcina’s “theater of dreams” her alternatives may be the rejects of her sister, transformed into half beasts or worse.  When it comes to love at first sight, opera reflects our culture, and in turn, shapes our experience and expectations of love.

Passion: Passion is the heart of love. From the ancient Greeks to modern psychologists, philosophers and scientists alike have attempted to parse “love” into types, such as platonic, friendly, compassionate, romantic or consummate. Really? When we think of love and opera, we think of passion. Whether it has resulted from persistence or an instant recognition, we know love by its passionate imprint.

In Alcina, devoted and misdirected passion weaves its way throughout the opera. Bradamante loves Ruggiero and risks all to rescue him. Morgana passionately pursues Bradamante, warns “him” of Alcina’s wrath and forsakes Oronte for “him.” Alcina herself has fallen deeply for Ruggiero. Unlike her previous lovers, instead of tiring of him and transforming him, she remains passionate about him even after he rejects her. Ruggiero loves Alcina under her spell. He describes his “flame” of passion. When released from this spell, he refocuses his passion on his love for Bradamante. The “opera-passion” connection epitomizes artistic symbiosis. It is not just a love story. It is the story of love.

Yet, at the opera, love also lives in the shadows. It has a darker side.

Jealousy: In the brilliant aria, È gelosia (It is Jealousy), Bradamante sings simultaneously to the lovesick Oronte (who longs to restore his relationship with Morgana) and to Morgana (who has fallen in love with Bradamante disguised as her brother).  Try reading through the aria and then, read every other line, as directed to each of the characters. Bradamante speaks to both the frustrated hopelessness of love lost and of bitter pain of jealousy. The music, words and structure of the aria all combine into its poignant message:

(to Oronte) It is jealousy,

(to Morgana) and the strength of your love,

(to Oronte) that troubles your heart,

(to Morgana) that you feel in your breast;

(to Oronte) but it also causes me suffering,

(to Morgana) I feel its tyranny in my heart too.

(to Oronte) For the sake of a lovely face, which you have lost, you sigh dejectedly.

(to Morgana) We are both angry, and all of us love without hope.

The da capo structure of the aria returns to its main point – jealousy. The painful disappointment of rejection turns to bitter anguish when you not only lose your love, but in addition you lose your love to another. This is the suffering of a classic love triangle: anguish turns to bitterness, awash in toxic jealousy.

We all recognize it in movies, books and in our own lives. Where does it come from? Our normal childhood development includes it.  At around age 3 to 5, we realize our parents have a love relationship with each other in addition to the love relationships with us. We feel outmatched. We may not have had the vocabulary to explain it, but the seeds of jealousy got implanted, and they sprout in any situation throughout life when the object of our love prefers another. It starts early. Any five-year-old boy can tell you who competes for Mom’s attention!

Bradamante knows the powerful dejection when her Ruggiero’s flight of fantasy involves him with the Alcina created in his theater of dreams. Oronte suffers when Morgana rejects him in favor of Bradamante. Ultimately, Alcina’s loss of Ruggiero causes her to deteriorate into dejection. Morgana, in parallel, falls apart in anger and anguish when Bradamante rejects her for Ruggiero.

Pause for a moment. Try to imagine any passionate love story in fiction, film, pop cultural or personal fantasy that does not have this competitive, jealous component. Lancelot competes with King Arthur for Guinevere’s heart; the jealous Betty competes with Veronica for Archie in the comics; the epic victory of Odysseus over Penelope’s suitors at the conclusion of his return home speaks to the archetypal power of this theme. These jealousies run deep. They accompany the powerful passions of love.

Aggression: Highly energized, passionate love often slides down the slippery slope to instinctive aggression when love is rejected. Love and anger often intermingle when feelings run hot. The jealous Alcina threatens to transform Bradamante into a beast to prove her love to Ruggerio, and threatens him in turn when it is clear he is escaping her spell. Morgana similarly becomes miserable and aggressive when rejected by Bradamante.

Opera speaks to this darker side of love. Current events as well as works of art and fiction graphically illustrate how love and aggression intermingle.  Otello (in the opera of Verdi as well as Othello in Shakespeare’s play) strangles his love, Desdemona. The all too frequent spousal abuse that appears in the evening news reminds us of the toxic mix of love and violence. Powerful primitive instincts inform our understanding of this shadowy side of human nature.

Ambivalence: Love rarely arrives free of doubts and misgivings. Falling in love often happens quickly, but a lifetime of commitment calls for careful consideration of another. Woe be to those who ignore the gravity of this step. Although steady streams of people flow through the wedding chapels of Las Vegas, divorce lawyers around the country stay plenty busy!

True ambivalence is more urgent than mere mixed feelings. When you “decide,” you resolve your mixed feelings (or there would not be a decision). Even with life and death on the line, if there are no mixed feelings, there is no decision.  Take breathing, for example. If we don’t breathe, we die. Yet, it is unlikely you have consciously decided to breath today. Why? It is simply because there are no pros and cons to be weighed.  Powerful ambivalence however cannot be resolved by “deciding.”  The feelings are too strong. Each pro has a con and vice versa. You are painfully stuck.

Alcina’s  characters suffer from  this true ambivalence – intense feelings tugging in two directions and preventing them from taking action. In the middle of the opera, when Alcina discovers that she has lost Ruggerio’s love when she no long holds him in her thrall, she sings the moving aria, Ah! Mio cor. She expresses both her despair and her anger at her abandonment. Similarly, ambivalence ensnares the angry Oronte. He wants to reject the fickle Morgana, but he knows he still loves her. It counterbalances his rage.

In SFO’s ingenious staging of Alcina, the director David Alden wraps love’s tale of persistence, spontaneity, passion, jealousy and ambivalence around Ruggerio’s fantasy world and the fictive characters — Alcina, Oronte and Morgana — who populate it.  Whether staged as a myth on a magical island or as a psychodrama in an abandoned theater, the opera tells a story of the many facets of love.

Love and opera: little wonder the Internet gets all those millions of hits when searching for love (and opera)!  We enter Handel’s realm of love and fantasy. The tale is rich. The music is alluring. The opera deeply moves any of us who have found our passion, lost our love, or remain steadfast in our search. Handel compels us to join the chorus of those bewitched by Alcina’s magic.