The week in classical: Alcina; Bajazet; Pavel Kolesnikov – review | Classical music


Bobbing across choppy black waters towards land, we reach a rocky shore, infertile but for a few sad palm trees. Only in the bewitchings of Handel’s sorceress-chatelaine does the island become a mirage of lush green whorls and juicy succulents. Opera North’s new Alcina, directed by Tim Albery, opens with this striking imagery on a film backdrop. Throughout, the visual device works hard to provide the magic in Handel’s fantasy tale of 1735.

The company describes this as its “first sustainable mainstage production”, an important milestone, if not entirely successful in result. The main props are blue velvet club-style chairs and a lighting rig that rises and falls as required. Two sorceresses – Alcina and her sister Morgana – lure susceptible men into their domain. Quickly bored, Alcina wizards her rejected lovers into animals, stones and trees. (The programme note explains, lest any were unsure, that this is a metaphor.)

In the opera’s twisting plot, nearly everyone is someone else or thinks they might be. Disguise and cross-dressing or undressing dominate the action. Deciding how to present Handel for today’s audiences is an endless directorial challenge. Two weeks ago, the fuss was about Katie Mitchell throwing a capacious feminist veil over Handel’s Theodora at the Royal Opera House. Last week in Leeds the intervention was, if anything, more extreme. Hackles haven’t risen in the same way. Opera North’s media campaigns are quieter, and tend to let a piece speak for itself, though I found the results more problematic. The story has been reworked, one character excised altogether, another – the bass role of Melisso – now given to a mezzo-soprano as Melissa (effectively sung by Claire Pascoe).

Cuts to the music were sanctioned by the conductor Laurence Cummings. As musical director of the London Handel festival, having recently completed his stint as artistic director with the authoritative Internationale Händel-Festspiele Göttingen, he doesn’t take such decisions lightly. Directing from the keyboard, he kept speeds brisk. Collectively the orchestra sounded happier than the singers, who too often struggled with tuning and articulation, but these sounded like first night problems that should settle.

The designs are by Hannah Clark, lighting by Matthew Richardson and video by Ian Galloway. Dressed in secondhand and vintage, hair variously crimped (Bradamante), hippy-long (Ruggiero) or swept up high (Alcina), the cast had a generic retro look. Máire Flavin, in the title role, with the glamour of a film star, handled her fall from regal witchy diva to broken woman affectingly. Fflur Wyn’s Morgana was flighty and charming and, against the odds of the plot, believable. Some of the best singing came from Nick Pritchard, in the smaller role of Morgana’s lover, Oronte. The American countertenor Patrick Terry, in his Opera North debut as the errant knight Ruggiero, not an easy role to flesh out dramatically, found his form in the poignant aria Verdi prati.

The Norwegian mezzo-soprano Mari Askvik, also making her house debut as Bradamante, was outstanding vocally but could have been allowed greater girl-power independence. Why not remind us of this knight heroine’s cultural identity as expert in combat, intolerant of weaklings, with a magic lance and, you bet, a flying horse? The softened ending robs the piece of one of its most charged dramatic moments. Instead, in a reference to the cult writer Bruno Schulz’s short story Undula, Alcina crawls and thrashes under a bearskin, a Venus in furs to the last. (Streamed live on 17 February; available until 17 August 2022.)

In this early spring feast of baroque opera, Vivaldi’s Bajazet – from 1735, the same year as Alcina – made a triumphant appearance at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury theatre in a compact staging by Adele Thomas, designed by Molly O’Cathain, for Irish National Opera. Blood and gore mixed, excitingly, with flair and effervescence. Vivaldi’s operas, here with borrowings from other composers of the era, are only now becoming available in modern editions and recordings.

Claire Booth (Irene), Niamh O’Sullivan (Asteria) and James Laing (Tamerlano) in Bajazet.
Claire Booth (Irene), Niamh O’Sullivan (Asteria) and James Laing (Tamerlano) in Bajazet. Photograph: Kip Carroll

This is the well-plotted, racy story of the Ottoman emperor Bajazet and his fate at the hands of his Uzbek opponent Tamerlano. Peter Whelan, every inch of his body responding expressively to Vivaldi’s restless, vigorous score, directed from the harpsichord. The 10-strong Irish Baroque Orchestra matched his zest and variety. A brilliant cast led by Claire Booth, Niamh O’Sullivan and James Laing poured physical and vocal energy into each move, each note. It was simply done, stunningly achieved.

Brief but spirited applause for a recital livestreamed from Wigmore Hall. The Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, ever a poetic and daring player, constructed a tantalising homage to Proust with music by Schubert, Franck, Hahn and Fauré. It obeyed none of the conventions of an “ordinary recital” and was all the better for it. Still free to watch. Searching for Proust’s lost time instead of our own is a perfect distraction.

Pavel Kolesnikov at Wigmore Hall.
‘Poetic and daring’: Pavel Kolesnikov at Wigmore Hall. Photograph: Wigmore Hall

Star ratings (out of five)
Pavel Kolesnikov: In Memory of Marcel Proust

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