An Epic Spin-Off: Handel's 'Alcina'

woo-1625-alcina1-storyIn the entertainment world, a hit can be registered in any number of ways.  There are chart-topping songs, television ratings leaders and top-grossing movies.  There also times when a hit song, TV series or film outgrows those usual measures of success and becomes something even bigger:  a franchise.

For example, there's the TV show "Law & Order."  One of the most popular television series of all time, it spent a full 20 years on the air.  But "Law and Order" was -- and is -- far more than a single TV show. There has been a whole collection of spin-offs from the series, including "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,"  "Criminal Intent" and "Trial by Jury." There was also a "Law & Order" TV movie, and there are "Law & Order" video games.  And there's been talk of bringing the series itself back to life.  "Law and Order" has morphed into a true, television franchise.

Over time, there have been plenty of other entertainment franchises.  At the cinema, for example, the Twilight and Hunger Games films come to mind, and those sprung from franchises of bestselling, contemporary novels.

And, while you might not expect to find franchise-style entertainment at the opera house, there has also been at least one great operatic franchise -- in turn rooted in a literary bestseller that's five centuries old.

Early in the 1500s, the Italian writer Ludovico Ariosto released an epic poem called Orlando Furioso, telling the story of a crusading knight who goes mad over a lost love, then travels the world trying to win her back.  A century or so later, when opera was born, Ariosto's passionate characters and exotic settings quickly attracted any number of composers -- creating what could be called an "Orlando franchise" in Europe's theaters.  

Eventually, so many Orlando operas were written that scholars have never managed to catalogue them all.  Vivaldi wrote two of them.  Lully and Scarlatti each wrote one, and so did Haydn.  And George Frideric Handel created an Orlando franchise all on his own.

Handel realized that Orlando Furioso has plenty of characters -- not just Orlando -- that are worthy of their own operas.  So, while Handel composed three operas based on Ariosto's epic, only one is called Orlando.  Another is called Ariodante, after a different lovesick knight.  And there's also the opera featured here this week.  It's named for one of the epic's most colorful characters, the passionate sorceress Alcina.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Handel's Alcina from one of the world's most unusual operatic venues.  While Switzerland's Grand Theatre of Geneva is undergoing an extensive, two-year renovation, the company has moved to a brand new, temporary theater, constructed completely of wood, and with remarkable acoustics.  The components of the theater were actually recycled -- they were previously used to create a temporary home for the Comédie Francais, in Paris. This unique theater's Geneva location is right next door to the European Headquarters of the United Nations -- thus the venue's name:  the Opéra des Nations, or Opera of Nations.

The Geneva production of Alcina features soprano Nicole Cabell in the title role, with mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli as Ruggiero, a warrior who falls under Alcina's deadly spell, and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström as Bradamante, a former-lover who braves Alcina's magic to win Ruggiero back. The conductor is Leonardo García Alarcón, leading the Suisse Romande Orchestra.