© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Saturday, July 2, 2022
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes, East Sussex, England
Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers
Alcina (1735) is one of Handel’s most magical operas – not simply because it is one of a handful by him in which sorcery plays an active part in the narrative, but also on account of its vividly drawn characters who are given a wealth of memorable, ravishing music.
In Francesco Micheli’s new production for Glyndebourne, the enchantments of the sorceress’s island are transmuted into the lurid attractions of an Italian revue during the post-War economic boom of the 1960s. Alcina’s teatro lirico within which that takes place is more like a casino complex or pleasure palace, set within a vastly expanding city of skyscrapers, with a recurring backdrop of the modern Torre Valesca and the Duomo’s pinnacles indicating Milan. But other video projections refer to the place as ‘Chiaromonte’, presumably after the southern Italian town that was the subject of a book by the political scientist Edward C. Banfield about moral bankruptcy within a community.
Micheli mischievously draws an aptly metatheatrical connection between his concept of Alcina, the actress presiding over a realm of theatrical illusions, and the audience by mirroring the latter with the besuited extras who wander (as Ruggiero and fellow Christian knights from this episode from Orlando furioso evidently have done) into her realm in search of pleasures to escape everyday boredom, but which prove idle, vacuous, or harmful. Money passes hands, and they obsessively follow Alcina and her retinue around like groupies on and off the stage (interestingly there are parallels with Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, set in the very same decade in which Handel composed the opera) and pass time at a bar, until they finally tire of the aging entertainer’s charms as her powers wane during her second aria of desperation ‘Ombre pallide’.
Micheli’s deliberately kitsch reinterpretation of Baroque theatre and style (such as in the costumes, Alcina’s throne, and keeping the dances Handel originally wrote for a touring French troupe) has elements of Barrie Kosky’s self-described “extravagant minimalism” as seen in the latter’s own Handel productions of Saul for Glyndebourne and Agrippina for theRoyal Opera. But Micheli deploys those not so much as a self-indulgent, crude end in themselves, but to a generally more meaningful, insightful purpose that runs parallel to Handel’s original, and ironises (to some extent at the audience’s expense) the phenomenon and conventions of theatre-going itself.
The intermittent appearance of a plain double bed, in which Ruggiero and his real lover and fiancée, Bradamante, are seen, clearly enough evoke their ordinary petit bourgeois existences away from the make-believe of Alcina’s theatre. The presence of the boy Oberto (searching for his father, who has fallen victim to Alcina’s spells in the original scenario) in a similarly dowdy home environment is less obvious – the uneasy looking, frumpish woman he is seen with could be his mother; and it is less clear whether the implication of his search is that it threatens to reveal something like an affair of his father’s with Alcina which the family would rather keep quiet. More puzzling is that, once the characters have opened Alcina’s box of tricks and acknowledged the roles they have been playing as the victims of her sorcery in the preceding drama, her power isn’t broken and the revue disbanded (as the original would imply should happen) but the cabaret act starts again. If that other paradigm of Baroque theatre, Pierre Corneille, is invoked in this apparent extension of the ‘comic illusion’ by one degree more to create a play-within-a-play-within-a-play, then it comes as too abrupt and incidental a turn to register as anything very significant. Instead it rather seems that nothing has changed or developed in the course of the drama, and that there is no different or normal world to which Ruggiero and the bewitched creatures of Alcina’s realm might return, ignoring the moral thrust of Handel’s work.
Does such a metaphorical ‘smoke and mirrors’ sleight of hand at the conclusion explain their literal manifestation on-stage in the otherwise largely irrelevant direction ‘vietato fumare’ seen at various times on the set, and the mirrors of the actors’ dressings rooms? Very good points are made throughout the production, but they need tightening up to make it a dramaturgically outstanding unity, however entertaining it might all be as a theatrical spectacle.
Musically things are not entirely all they seem either. Standards are equally positive, on the whole, but an opera which explores the allures of love (in its true and false forms) in such a fantastical scenario needs more sparkling variety than it tends to receive here. Jane Archibald sings efficiently in the title-role, but even though her slow-burn expression of grief is devastatingly built up during the long, remarkable ‘Ah! mio cor’ to become an entire drama in its own right, she is surprisingly demure elsewhere, failing to create the ravishing appeal that has attracted Ruggiero and so many others. Instead it is Soraya Mafi who captivates and dazzles in a vivid performance as her sister Morgana. She demonstrates such lustrous virtuosity in ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ and impressive versatility in her other numbers.
Again, whereas Samantha Hankey makes a serviceable Ruggiero, without moving us to any particular extremes of emotion or sympathy (notwithstanding technically brilliant coloratura as the opportunity arises) it is Beth Taylor, as Bradamante (come in disguise as ‘Ricciardo’ to rescue Ruggiero) who makes more impact by her resolute, sturdy account of the role. Stuart Jackson’s Oronte characterfully snarls in his first aria as he explains to Ruggiero that Alcina’s charms are deceptive, but otherwise sings with mellifluous dutifulness. Alastair Miles and James Cleverton are vehement as the voices of moral conscience, Melisso and Astolfo, the former represented here as a Catholic priest, embodying in terms that are culturally correct within this production’s context the psychological force of the superego (Micheli cites Freudian psychoanalysis as an inspiration for some of its themes). Rowan Pierce gives a commendably well-rounded and convincing depiction of Oberto – a role sometimes cut entirely from performances.
Jonathan Cohen leads the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a solid reading of the score. For the sizeable theatre at Glyndebourne, there are necessarily more instruments than might usually be heard now in interpretations of this repertoire, slightly overegging various arias in pushing articulation too hard, if not especially their tempo. Horns are disappointingly inexact in Ruggiero’s triumphant ‘Stà nell’Ircana’ too. But the strings’ commitment is channelled to striking effect elsewhere, as in ‘Ah! mio cor’ already mentioned, and almost chillingly for ‘Verdi prati’ as Ruggiero finally realises the delusory beauty of Alcina’s snares. The instrumental dances are rendered idiomatically, with more appropriate French colour for their particular meters and timbres.
Production and performance offer much that is stimulating, therefore, but certain inconsistencies and flaws detract from a completely satisfying vision overall.
Further performances to August 24
Alcina – Opera in three Acts to an anonymous libretto after an episode in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Bradamante – Beth Taylor
Melisso – Alastair Miles
Morgana – Soraya Mafi
Alcina – Jane Archibald
Oberto – Rowan Pierce
Ruggiero – Samantha Hankey
Oronte – Stuart Jackson
Astolfo – James Cleverton
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Francesco Micheli – Director
Eduardo Sanchi – Designer
Alessio Rosati – Costume Designer
Mike Ashcroft – Choreographer
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer