Glyndebourne Festival Opera, West Sussex ★★★★★
In Francesco Micheli’s new production of Handel’s Alcina, the lights go up on a little family whose dysfunctional demeanour suggests misery. Then the stage fills with grey-suited speculators and their business plans. Then – bam! – we face bold neon adverts for a down-town variety show called ‘Isola d’Alcina’ – ‘Alcina’s Island’, with a fish-tailed mermaid inviting us in.
Mystifying? That’s just the overture. Cut then to a story whose complexity makes the brain reel. Alcina is a sexually voracious enchanter who turns her discarded suitors into trees and wild beasts on her island. Ruggiero, blinded by his obsession, is the latest of these, and his jilted partner Bradamante has arrived (cross-dressed, and disguised as ‘Ricciardo’) to rescue him.
Meanwhile Alcina’s randy sister Morgana fancies ‘Ricciardo’, in favour of whom she jilts her lover Oronte. Sub-plots are then thrown in, including a teenage boy (Oberto) come to rescue his father from Alcina’s clutches.
Add to all this the fact that the story is told as a cabaret (design and lighting, Edoardo Sanchi and Bruno Poet), with rows of dancing girls on plywood sets (a communal dressing room, a bar, a bedroom) which the characters cheerfully push around the stage. How could this farrago possibly honour Handel’s most sublime score?
But with a lovely full-circle revelation at the close, it does that job beautifully. And better, in fact, than a conventional treatment might have done, because the burlesque style somehow lets the human truth of these shattered relationships emerge vividly. Soprano Jane Archibald’s plangently vulnerable Alcina really does come over as an ageing woman, desperately snatching at a last chance of romance, and distraught when her power evaporates. Soprano Soraya Mafi’s Morgana – gorgeously sung, and brilliantly acted (and danced) – is a spitfire incarnation nicely counterbalanced by tenor Stuart Jackson’s comically Wildeian Oronte, whose jealous rage sparks the denouement.
As a cross-dressed Ruggiero, mezzo Samantha Hankey makes something psychologically interesting out of her tormented character, while mezzo Beth Taylor’s Bradamante projects a baritonal firmness as the voice of reason. Soprano Rowan Pierce’s vocally shining Oberto wrings the withers.
But the glory of the evening is Handel’s, as his chains of exquisite da capo arias unfurl with gentle grace. We hold our breath in sympathy with Alcina’s anguished ‘Ah! mio cor!’; time stands still for Ruggiero’s luminous ‘Verdi prati’. Jonathan Cohen and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment spin skeins of beauty, and Micheli ensures that we raptly savour the musical high points, with no movement on stage, and just one cello mingling its voice with that of the solo singers.