Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Laurence Cummings
Director: Tim Albery
Alcine is one of those Italian operas by Handel (staged in London) that was originally based on myth, magic and massive spectacle. Sublime music remains a constant, but it is also important to invent a scenic language that makes sense at the 21st century.
One problem is the absurdity not only of the general plot, but of the individual situations. In the opening scene of Alcine, for example, a woman sees a handsome knight for the first time (actually another woman) and declares that she is in love. The audience inevitably chuckles. The opera director must judge the seriousness with which he takes the stage action. Sending characters and events (and it happens) is inexcusable; the art is to find a scenic language that maintains a cold detachment from reality, even an element of ritual, while entering wholeheartedly into the emotional world inhabited by the character at that precise moment.
For Opera North, Tim Albery is helped by incredibly high musical standards to take his time to establish his own scenic language: as one superb aria follows, we are gradually drawn into its world. The plot he has to work with involves Bradamante pursuing his lover Ruggiero in the guise of the knight Ricciardo. She arrives on the enchanted island of the witch Alcina who has had a series of former lovers transformed into inanimate objects or wild beasts. Now she 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!
Unlike Covent Garden in 1735, Opera North’s production avoids spectacle. It’s actually the first environmentally sustainable production on the main stage, with recycling as the key. In Hannah Clark’s costumes, mostly monochromatic with a touch of sparkle, the cast looks pretty good, and the set consists simply of armchairs arranged like in, perhaps, an airport lounge, lowered lighting and a large screen. At the start, the rigging is raised and the screen projects the view of a ship coming to a wooded island. During the opera we go further and further into the forest – no enchanted palace for Alcina, it is her kingdom. And finally, we leave the Heart of Darkness and leave the island; the singers, even the upset Alcina, join a cheerful sextet, and as the lighting system descends, they transform from characters to performers.
Mayor Flavin is Alcina, every inch a queen until everything starts to go wrong and then falls apart spectacularly. She has four major tunes in the second half that she infuses with drama, vocal contrast and compelling attack, her appeal to wits gloriously unhinged. Another remarkable performance comes from Patrick Terry (Ruggiero), a lyrically sweet countertenor, capable of judging pianissimo singing.
Norwegian mezzo Mari Askvik is assured and vocally immaculate as Bradamante, but could be a bit more powerful, even heroic, while company favorite Fflur Wyn (Morgana) has never sounded so intensely dramatic. Oronte, a somewhat ungrateful character, is nobly represented and magnificently 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 of her limited vocal possibilities and establishing an alternative enchantment with her sternly benign presence.
Despite this change in character and the inevitable cuts (the full version would keep us in the theater for four hours), this is an authentically Handelian performance, with Laurence Cummings choosing perfect tempos and dynamic contrasts. The score is Handel at its most melodious and subtle, with many passages for small groups of instruments or even solo instruments, and under Cummings the small orchestra plays beautifully, including wonderfully delicate string accompaniments. .
Until February 17and 2022