Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Laurence Cummings
Director: Tim Albery
Alcina is one of those Handel Italian operas (staged in London) that relied originally on myth, magic and massive spectacle. The sublime music remains a constant, but it’s important also to devise a stage language that makes sense in the 21st century.
One problem is the absurdity of not only the general plot, but of individual situations. In the opening scene of Alcina, for instance, a woman catches her first sight of a handsome knight (actually another woman) and declares that she’s in love. The audience, inevitably, titters. The opera director has to judge how seriously he or she is taking the stage action. Sending up the characters and events (and it happens) is inexcusable; the art is to find a stage language that maintains a cool detachment from reality, even an element of ritual, while entering whole-heartedly into the emotional world inhabited by the character at that moment of time.
For Opera North Tim Albery is aided by stunningly high musical standards in taking his time establishing his own stage language: as one superb aria follows another, we are gradually drawn into his world. The plot he has to work with involves Bradamante pursuing her lover Ruggiero in the guise of the knight Ricciardo. She comes to the enchanted island of the sorceress Alcina who has had a string of former lovers transformed into inanimate objects or wild beasts. Now she has enchanted Ruggiero to love her. Her sister, Morgana, and Oronte are in love, but Morgana falls in love with “Ricciardo”, as does Alcina – briefly. Misunderstandings and emotional crises multiply and in the end Alcina is thwarted and love triumphs – of course!
In contrast to Covent Garden in 1735 the Opera North production eschews spectacle. It is, in fact, the first environmentally sustainable Main Stage production, with re-cycling the key. In Hannah Clark’s costumes, mostly monochrome with a dash of sparkle, the cast look well enough and the set simply consists of easy chairs arranged as in, perhaps, an airport lounge, a lowered lighting rig and a large screen. At the beginning the rig is raised and the screen projects the view from a ship coming to a forested island. During the opera we go further and further into the forest – no enchanted palace for Alcina, this is her realm. And finally, we move back out of the Heart of Darkness and leave the island; the singers, even the thwarted Alcina, join in a joyful sextet and, as the lighting rig descends, they are transformed from characters to performers.
Maire Flavin is Alcina, every inch a queen until all starts going wrong, then falling apart dramatically. She has four major arias in the second half which she infuses with drama, vocal contrast and imperious attack, her summons to spirits gloriously unhinged. Another outstanding performance comes from Patrick Terry (Ruggiero), a counter-tenor of lyrical sweetness, capable of beautifully judged pianissimo singing.
Norwegian mezzo Mari Askvik is assured and vocally immaculate as Bradamante, but could be a touch more forceful, even heroic, while company favourite Fflur Wyn (Morgana) has never sounded so intensely dramatic. Oronte, a somewhat thankless character, is nobly represented and splendidly sung by Nick Pritchard. Melissa the enchantress and protector of Bradamonte, a character half-invented by Opera North from the original bass Melisso, is created by Claire Pascoe, assured in her limited vocal opportunities and establishing an alternative enchantment with her severely benign presence.
Despite this change of character and the inevitable cuts (the full version would keep us in the theatre for four hours) this is an authentically Handelian performance, with Laurence Cummings choosing perfect tempos and dynamic contrasts. The score is Handel at his most melodious and subtle, with many passages for small groups of instruments or even solo instruments, and under Cummings the small orchestra plays beautifully, notably some wonderfully delicate accompaniments from the strings.
Runs until February 17th 2022