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'Alcina' is a magical and tuneful delight

Soprano Jessica Tarnish was regal and poignant in Emmanuel Music's presentation of Handel's "Alcina." (Julian Bullitt)

Halfway through the first act of Emmanuel Music's concert presentation of Handel's "Alcina," tenor Frank Kelley saved the opera from turning into its respectable cousin, oratorio. As Oronte, connivingly informing the warrior Ruggiero that the sorceress Alcina would soon transform him into a wild animal, like the rest of her former lovers, Kelley dove into Handel's florid vocal lines with aplomb, each roulade and interval an opportunity for the theatrical unctuousness of a false friend.

Kelley's spark loosened up the hitherto cautious performance, as the other singers took his cue and embraced the plot's implausibility: Ruggiero, engaged to Bradamante, has been romantically bewitched by Alcina's magic, and Bradamante, disguised as her own brother Ricciardo, has come to Alcina's enchanted island to reclaim her fiance. Alcina's sister Morgana falls for "Ricciardo" at first sight, jilting Oronte in the process; meanwhile, the shipwrecked boy Oberto searches for his father, who has been turned into a lion. All unlikely, yet Handel fashions each heightened situation into vocal displays of technical and expressive virtuosity, which Emmanuel's singers furthered with ornamentation of transporting extravagance.

As Morgana, Barbara Kilduff offered a bright, crystalline coloratura that soared easily up to an interpolated high F in her first-act showpiece "Tornami a vagheggiar"; her pert flightiness was a fine foil to Kelley's exasperated jealousy. Valérie Arboit, as Ruggiero, physically embodied that not terribly reflective young man; though her mezzo-soprano was obscured by allergies, she unveiled a handsomely burnished tone in her aria "Mi lusinga."

Mezzo Pamela Dellal brought her customary intelligence and conviction to the part of Bradamante, sustaining the exhausting zeal of a character who can't get out three words without a Handelian explosion of running semiquavers. Soprano Roberta Anderson gave Oberto an appropriately lithe and boyish timbre, and baritone Donald Wilkinson was a serviceable Melisso, Bradamante's understandably weary chaperone.

Alcina herself stands apart, both dramatically and musically. Though she's the ostensible villain, it's as if Handel realized she is the one character with enough perspective to know that the greatest threat to love is not misunderstanding and confusion, but time and decay; her mirages hide disillusionment. Soprano Jessica Tarnish was both regal and poignant, boasting a big, colorful tone that moved with exceptional dexterity. Her second-act aria "Ah! Mio cor!" was stunning: She seamlessly spanned inward despair and carbon-steel determination, shimmering high notes and sonorous chest tones. It's a star role; Tarnish rose to the occasion.

Conductor Craig Smith shaped the time well , allowing the players to interact with each other, producing comfortable phrases. The orchestra was in fine form; of note was cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, whose heart-rending solo in Morgana's third-act "Credete al mio dolore" was the dramatic equal of any operatic luminary.


Craig Smith, artistic director

At: Emmanuel Church, Saturday