Composer: George Frideric Handel
Director: Tim Albery
With their current productions at The Lowry, Opera North have tried to make an art form often regarded as elitist accessible to a wider audience. Carmen has changed from a seductress/femme fatale to a single mother oppressed by the patriarchy and Rigoletto is ostracised because of his race rather than a disability. However, as Alcina is a fairy tale, developing contemporary relevance is a challenge and the approach taken, while satisfactory to hardcore opera buffs, may not appeal to those whose interest is more general.
Enchantress sisters Alcina (Sky Ingram) and Morgana (Fflur Wyn) live on an island that is made to appear a paradise by Alicna’s magic. Bradamante (Mari Askvik) and Melissa (Claire Pascoe) are apparently shipwrecked on the island but are actually on a quest to find the former’s fiancé Ruggiero (Patrick Terry). This is a problem as he has been enchanted by, and is now devoted to, Alcina who, like a preying mantis, tends to dispose of her lovers once her passion declines. More complications arise as Bradamante is disguised as a man and attracts the interest of Morgana to the outrage of her lover Oronte (Nick Pritchard).
The elements of modernisation in the production arise from it being classed as an environmentally sustainable production. Hannah Clark’s set and costumes are second-hand or repurposed. The opera opens in a place of transition possibly an airport departure lounge- a series of nondescript chairs are dotted around the stage-before Ian William Galloway’s video projections onto the rear wall of the stage send the characters rushing towards the island and deposits them in dense foliage. There is a sense of things not being quite right- of illusion- the forest, far from being lush and green, is a menacing monochrome shade.
The set and costumes are not the only way in which the production has been stripped-down. Director Tim Albery has trimmed the running time by removing dances. The revisions seem, however, contrary to the intentions of the author as Handel composed the opera intending to take advantage of the technological innovations and resources available at the time. An opera with just six characters, no chorus and a deliberately low-key approach feels a little skimpy for audiences who associate the genre with opulent sets and grand displays.
Opera is not known for logical plots but some of the revisions make Alcina confusing. The usual justification for a female character pretending to be a man is to deter unwanted advances. Yet in this production the gender of the male Melisso has been switched to a female Melissa so Bradamante’s disguise is pointless – there is still the risk of her companion attracting unwelcome attention.
Director Tim Albery sticks to a relentlessly melodramatic tone avoiding any humour. There are moments – Ruggiero proclaiming to Alcina he is in love and, in an aside, admitting ‘’ But not with you’’ or Bradamante finally losing patience and starting to strangle her lover which seem to beg a wink to the audience or a least a variation in tone, but these are avoided.
The production becomes, therefore, a display of the technical prowess of the cast. Yet, when people remark they dislike opera this is the approach they have in mind- long arias which do not move the plot forward. Alcina is, therefore, a production that is easier to admire than to enjoy. One might appreciate the quality of the stunning singing but fail to be emotionally engaged.
Reviewed on Friday 11 March 2022