After seeing Alcina I have decided where I am going for my next holiday, or at least I would have if the island on which the opera was set had been named. It is not my usual target destination being a sparsely populated place with nothing much by way of interest except jungle and beach. The USP is that when you arrive all, or should that be both, women inhabitants throw themselves at you before you have time to unpack. It’s a bit like Love Island for grown-ups except instead of being voted off, you are transformed into a wild beast when the Queen, Alcina, gets fed up with you. At my age I would be more than happy to give it a go!
Not only had I never seen Alcina before, hardly surprising given the short time I have been reviewing this medium, but I had never even heard of it. It was written by Georg Friedrich Händel who changed his name to George Frederick Handel in 1727 having moved to London and then to George Fawke Handel in 1976 for a Two Ronnies sketch*. OK, that last bit is a fib but I couldn’t resist. Look out for another GFH pun later.
The opera has been partially updated in that the singers wear modern dress except for Bradamante, played by Mari Askvik, disguised as her soldier brother Ricciardo, who is initially clad in a steel breastplate and wielding a large sword. Perhaps it is this eccentric garb which makes, firstly Morgana (Fflur Wyn), and then her sister Alcina ( Máire Flavin) throw themselves at him/her.
The reason for the subterfuge is that another of the inhabitants, Ruggiero, counter-tenor Patrick Terry, was engaged to Bradamante before he left home to fight in the army and never came back after being washed up on the island. He fell in love with Alcina, and she with him, so he stayed. Bradamante made it her quest to track him down and bring him home. Alcina, apart from being queen is also an enchantress, hence her ability to be able to transform her exes into creatures of the jungle when the novelty wore off. Bradamante, however, was accompanied by her own enchantress, Melissa (Claire Pascoe) who acts as her minder.
When Morgana hits on Bradamante, her lover Oronte (Nick Pritchard) is obviously a bit miffed and the two rivals become involved in an ongoing conflict. The whole thing is resolved when Bradamente removes her armour and her more casual male garb to reveal that she is not Ricciardo and Ruggiero realises that it is she whom he loves. This obviously comes as a bit of a shock to Morgana and Alcina, both of whom seem oblivious to the fact that they have been coming on to a woman and still seem to want to continue the relationship. So much so that Alcina decides to revert to type and put a curse on Ruggiero to turn him into a wild beast. Fortunately Melissa out-enchantresses her and the gods ignore Alcina’s summoning.
All ends well, except for Alcina who is left alone and powerless, but good has triumphed over evil so that’s all right then.
The direction, by Tim Albery, is such that I have no problem with making light of this review because that is how the production was pitched. Whilst not exactly flippant it was done with an often humorous touch. I was wondering whether this was the original aim as the mindset in relation to gender and sexuality would have been very different amongst the 1735 audiences at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden than the one at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2022. Whatever, I thought that this was a brilliantly staged piece and it had me hooked the whole way through.
Hannah Clark was the Set and Costume Designer who was very inventive with both. I have said that I was not sure about the armour worn by Bradamante when the rest of the cast was in modern dress but it was an effective way of concealing the gender of the character until it was removed later to reveal the top part of a basque. There was a superb touch near the end when Alcina, after she had been rebuffed by the gods, reclined on a bear skin which had thus far been acting as a rug and, after covering herself with it, prowled across the stage as if becoming a wild animal herself. Brilliant! The effect in the photographs doesn’t do the real thing justice.
Speaking of the set, Alcina is the first fully sustainable show from Opera North which, amongst many other things, means that they are re-using props and scenery from past productions in order to cut down on unnecessary waste. Apart from the aforementioned bear skin, there were ten green velvet armchairs which looked as though they had been originally used for a sixties domestic drama – very Habitat – but were imaginatively utilised in many ways during the evening. The coast and jungle were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage which again proved very effective and far more convincing than plastic palm trees. The mid century look first manifested itself in the opening scene when, as the curtain opened, we were presented with the spotlights which would provide illumination from the top of the set, suspended just above the chairs like pendant lights of that era, only much bigger. They slowly rose into their rightful position above the action. A couple of times they were lowered again when the plot dictated.
The video images were the brainchild of Ian William Galloway and the lighting that of Matthew Richardson.
The singing was its usual peerless self, all the more challenging as the relationships between the characters was illustrated by much joint reclining and writhing. It is not easy to sing when horizontal and in the midst of foreplay, as I vaguely remember.
The orchestra, conducted by Laurence Cummings was also faultless doing more than justice to the wonderful Baroque music of Handel.
I have to say, that I really enjoyed this production and, although the music was unfamiliar to me, I think that it is the perfect way to get into the medium. OK, the plot is daft, even for Eighteenth Century stories, but that gives it a fun element and, with good triumphing over evil, it has the extra moral reassurance.
For once you can see if you agree with my opinion of this opera, and it won’t cost you a penny. The performance on Thursday, 17th February is being streamed live by https://operavision.eu/en and will be available to download for six months. There is nothing like attending a live presentation but, should you be unable to go in person or just want to see what opera is like, then why not settle down with a cup of tea, or something stronger if you want to properly recreate the experience, and download it. I am reliably informed that it will be available worldwide so my friends in the USA and Europe will be able to see what a beautiful theatre I have the great pleasure in attending on a regular basis, and how good opera really is.
As a footnote, if you do download the opera and you disagree violently with my assessment of it, when you next see me please don’t fly off the Handel. I did warn you!
To book to go see the opera live, as well as find out what else Opera North are presenting, please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/
All images were provided by Opera North
*For those of you who live outside the UK or are of a tender age, please follow this link to explain the Handel joke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNTM9iM1eVw