(Photo: James Glossop)
In the early 1730s the newly established The Opera of the Nobility succeeded in displacing Handel from London’s King’s Theatre, causing him to relocate to the recently built Covent Garden, a theatre furnished with the latest stage machinery, a chorus and dance company. The composer’s response to his new circumstances was to compose a run of successful operas, starting with “Ariodante” in 1735.
The same year also saw the premiere of his spectacular and fantastical opera “Alcina,” which won over the audience with its stunning arias and dazzling scenic effects, notching up 18 performances and a further five when it was revived for the 1736/7 season.
The Handel Specialist Laurence Cummings Delivers A Quality Performance
However, this season’s Opera North production could not be said to have had the same effect. While the musical side under the direction of Handel specialist Laurence Cummings certainly hit the mark with an emotionally forceful interpretation in which the singers and the Orchestra of Opera North uncovered the human passions and sensitivities which drive the drama forwards, and allowed for some superb singing performances, the staging could not be said to be spectacular in any sense, nor were the fantastical elements of the narrative developed.
Rather Tim Albery’s well-crafted stage direction, which was to a large extent in close accord with Cumming’s musical interpretation, focused almost exclusively on the intimate and very personal interactions of the characters, and successfully highlighted the characters’ strong emotional responses. There was, however, the occasional misstep which caused the audience to laugh out loud at inappropriate moments, caused by mistaken identity, gender confusion, and Albery’s clumsy attempts to clarify the situation.
Downplaying The Work’s Potential Visual Brilliance
The decision to downplay the work’s potential for fantastical and scenic brilliance, however, did lead to what was a fairly colorless staging. The costume and set designer Hannah Clark took an approach which was too intellectual, to the extent it diminished the visual impact. In the program notes she outlined her ideas which although admirable and interesting, such as using re-cycled materials or in likening the theatre itself to a place of enchantment, did not translate into an engaging set. The props consisted of little more than a few scattered chairs, which she suggested could be used to conjure up illusions, such as a nightclub or a cocktail bar, which could then rapidly disappear.
The reality was very different; the sets seemed unimaginative, and did not convince. Costumes were generally from the mid 20th century and were successfully used to define the characters, although were not particularly colourful.
The use of a black and white video, designed by William Galloway, projected onto the back of the stage was the only feature of the staging to provide any sense of the work being set on an island, and thus in a distinct self-contained environment. Moreover, it allowed for the deeper interpretation of self-realization arising from the confusion into which the characters are propelled, as they journey deeper into the dark forest.
Overall, the staging achieved what Albery wanted, that is to explore the relationships between the characters and to uncover the psychological and emotional crises into which the characters are thrust, which was brought into sharper focus by cutting the dance scenes and the insignificant character of Oberto. It was, however, achieved at the expense of the work’s magical splendor and visual color.
Máire Flavin Leads A Strong Cast
Soprano Máire Flavin gave a very human portrayal of the sorceress Alcina, as she fell victim to the power of her own passions. She was sexually aggressive, seductive and jealous, pained and tormented. All were presented forcefully and boldly without ambiguity. Her opening aria “Di’, cor mio quanto t’amai,” an expression of mutual love between herself and Ruggiero, is turned into a physical encounter in which Flavin played up Alcina’s sexual excitement, using the versatility of her coloratura to depict her ecstasy, which also added a light touch of humor to the scene.
In her aria “Ah mio cor” Flavin successfully uncovers the deep pain Alcina’s suffers when she learns of Ruggiero’s escape. In what was a very sensitive rendition, she once again highlighted Alcina’s strong emotions, wonderfully capturing her vulnerability and human weakness.
If her portrait plumbed the depths of Alcina’s passions, it was not at the expense of subtlety or detail. In her passage of accompanied recitative “Ah Ruggiero crudel” she calls upon the spirits to wreak vengeance on Ruggiero, but they do not answer. Flavin subtly crafted each line with colorful and dynamic accents and coated her voice with complex emotions, as she raged, pleaded and descended into a deeper state of torment. This is followed by her aria “Ombre pallide, io so, mi udite” in which realizing her power has gone, she continues to plead with the spirits to intervene, which again allowed her to show off the expressive power and versatility of her voice.
Bramante was parted by mezzo-soprano Mari Askvik. In what was a forceful, expressive and energetic singing and acting presentation, Askvik successfully captured Bramante’s frustrations and pain following Ruggiero’s rejection and betrayal, resulting from Alcina’s sorcery. Both recitatives and arias were attacked with passion such as in the aria “Vorrei vendicarmi” in which she raged at Ruggiero, exposing her own pain in a dramatically forceful passage of singing, full of dynamic and emotional inflections, in which she allowed her coloratura to spiral angrily. Askvik has very strong stage presence and an imposing physique which allowed her to convincingly portray both Bramante the woman, and Bramante disguised as her brother Ricciardo, and was able to switch seamlessly between her male and female characterizations.
The male role of Melisso was changed to the female role of Melissa, as originally depicted in Ariostos’s “Orlando Furioso,” the source text for the anonymous libretto. The fact Melissa was also a sorceress and rival to Alcina gave greater weight and significance to the character. She was played by mezzo-soprano Claire Pascoe, who produced a solid performance in which her singing displayed a pleasing array of colors, which added to the depth of her characterization.
A Countertenor To Watch
Ruggiero was parted by the American countertenor Patrick Terry. He put in an outstanding performance in which he also captured his character’s strong passions, and the confusion he experienced when forced to confront a fast changing reality, to which he gave voice in his aria “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto.” It was rendered with passion and expressivity, yet was always fully controlled. Terry’s voice exhibits a pleasing monochromatic tone with a high degree of versatility, which he used intelligently to craft detailed lines, thoughtfully embellished and accented to deepen characterization, which was nicely displayed in his opening aria “Di te mi rido” in which obsessed with Alcina, he dismisses Bradmante and Melissa’s pleading. His presentation of the acclaimed aria “Verdi prati, selve armene” was delicately and beautifully rendered, for which he received sustained applause. Throughout the performance he was attentive to his character’s fast changing emotions, and was always sensitive to the subtleties of the text which ensured that recitatives were expertly delivered.
In yet another compelling performance, Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn made a strong impression in the role of Morgana. Without ever indulging in vocal histrionics she brought the character fully alive, in which her secure technique and vocal versatility allowed her to embellish the vocal line with a deep emotional honesty. Her coloratura and ornamentations were sensitively delivered, leaps undertaken with ease, and her passaggio was seamless. It was her ability to carry the melody with such a high degree of sensitivity, however, which stood out, and was beautifully exemplified in the aria “Credete al mio dolore” in which, to a cello accompaniment, she pleads with Oronte to have her back. Wyn’s emotional attachment to the character was total, her pain etched in her voice in what was a moving portrayal.
Tenor Nick Pritchard produced a pleasing performance in the role of Oronte, if occasionally emotionally a little too flat on occasions. His best contribution, the aria “Un momento di contento,” however, was excellent, in which he drew out its full emotional content with a strong presentation.
Musically, this was a first rate production, in which the cast combined brilliantly with the Orchestra of Opera North to create a dramatically tight and emotionally strong reading. The stage direction, although lacking the visual splendor which often accompanies the work, nevertheless worked in tandem with music, and in this respect can be considered to be a success.