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It might seem perverse to take Handel's Alcina - written for London's Covent Garden Theatre, with its state-of-the-art machinery able to provide lavish visual effects - and stage it with a bare minimum of spectacle. But Tim Albery's production for Opera North focused our attention on the human relationships within its typically knotty plot-line.
Alcina lures strangers to her magic island, transforming ex-lovers into wild animals, trees or rocks. At the start, Ian Galloway's video, projected on a backdrop, took us over the water to a picture-postcard beach, with the island becoming more densely overgrown the further inland we went. (At the end of the opera the video was shown in reverse, leading us away from the island.) Bradamante (disguised as her brother, Riccardo) and her governess Melissa - gender-swapped in this production from the original bass role, Melisso - are washed ashore. They are met by Alcina's sister, Morgana, and led to her palace, where they find Bradamante's lover, Ruggiero, completely under Alcina's spell.
The highly theatrical set-up in which this tale of disguises, assumed identities and mis-matched couples played itself out was suggested by a lighting rig suspended a few feet above the stage at the start, then raised as the action got under way. Otherwise the set comprised several lounge chairs, and a bearskin rug; more on that later.
Fflur Wyn sparkled in Morgana's first aria as she greeted the new arrivals, and started to fancy 'Riccardo', throwing her previous relationship with Alcina's general, Oronte, off-course. The desperation of her Act III plea to Oronte for forgiveness was all the more heart-rending as a result, matched by Jessica Burroughs' deeply expressive cello obbligato.
Patrick Terry's Ruggiero grew in stature from the love-sick puppy we first met, fawning and petulant by turns. As he came to acknowledge what was really going on, he took his sad but necessary farewell of the island, making 'Verdi Prati', one of Handel's greatest arias, a moment of compelling stillness. As Oronte, Nick Pritchard was all macho bluffness to start with, before his increasing self-knowledge started taking hold. Claire Pascoe brought an understated but powerful authority to the role of Melissa, frequently pacing the back of the stage, observing the action as much as participating it in, her long silver hair suggesting a Mary Beard-like wisdom and gravitas.
Mari Askvik's tonal warmth as Bradamante complemented the convincing assumption of her masculine disguise.
As for Alcina herself, Máire Flavin inhabited every corner of this multi-dimensional character, lascivious in her early scenes with Ruggiero, and gradually revealing the vulnerability behind her imperiousness. And this is where the bearskin came into its own, after being lain on and snuggled up to along the way by some of the other characters. As Alcina saw her power crumbling she wrapped herself in it as though taking shelter, then was reduced to crawling across the stage in it, becoming one of the wild animals she has created.
Handel specialist Laurence Cummings encouraged lively period-style playing from the Opera North orchestra. The many dance numbers were cut, as was the role of Oberto, a boy searching for his father, but this was a late addition to the score anyway, so no damage was done to the dramatic structure. Damage was done, however, by the decision to play the opera in two halves, with an interval in the middle of Act II, where it does not belong. Alcina's great aria 'Ombre pallide', as she tries in vain to conjure her spirits to stop Ruggiero escaping - and Máire Flavin was in thrilling voice here - should be a really strong Act II curtain number. Instead, it ran straight into Act III, and went for much less, dramatically, that it otherwise would have done.
The moment when Alcina's realm is finally destroyed was also something of an anti-climax. (In the original scenario, Ruggiero smashes the urn containing the source of her magic powers.) It really needed something to make a visual impact, which playing down the element of spectacle beforehand would have enhanced.
A pity, because otherwise this production gets so much right, exploring the psychology of the characters and their shifting relationships with insights to match Handel's own.
Copyright © 31 March 2022