Few will challenge Alcina’s claims to contain some of the finest vocal writing that even Handel ever penned. The problem is with staging it. Under the skin, Alcina engages with serious stuff – desire, betrayal, rejection and trust. But the plot – an island enchantress battles to retain power over her lovers – is wrapped in artifice and improbability. Many productions fall short. Tim Albery’s intelligent staging for Opera North – the first of several Alcinas in the UK over the coming months – is, ultimately, another of them.
Albery’s achievement is to have cleared enough of Alcina’s clutter to ensure focus on the work’s emotional core. The score is heavily cut, reshaped into two acts, not three. Hannah Clark’s perky designs, stripped back and sustainable, consist of 1960s upholstered chairs and a bearskin rug. Costumes are contemporary, save the occasional sword and breastplate. Ian Galloway’s video backdrop initially suggests an island of dreams but morphs into an oppressive heart of darkness jungle.
The theatrical impact, however, is fitful. That’s partly the doing of Handel’s Ariosto-derived libretto. But it is also because the tensions between the principal emotional triangle – Alcina, her lover, Ruggiero, and his wife, Bradamante (disguised as a man), all remained here at too low a key. The subsidiary relationship between Alcina’s sister Morgana and her suitor Oronte, by contrast, was very effectively done.
All this could be resolved, as it often is in Alcina, by standout singing. Here, however, vocal standards were satisfactory but unexceptional. Máire Flavin seems to possess the voice for the title role but, at least on the opening night, her outbursts of passion and anger against Ruggiero did not wring the withers as they should. The US countertenor Patrick Terry has the big role of Ruggiero well within his compass. He sang his famous farewell to the island impeccably, but the intonation wandered a little at other times. Mari Askvik’s tastefully sung Bradamante was too vocally discreet to seize the gender fluid opportunities in Albery’s direction.
It was left to Fflur Wyn’s Morgana to bring a bit more life to the proceedings, and not just in her showpiece act one aria (which some Alcinas steal for themselves). She and Nick Pritchard’s Oronte provided the most touching performances of the evening. The excellent Laurence Cummings conducted with a good mix of Handelian vigour and langour.