Royal Opera House 2022 Review: Alcina
Richard Jones’ Frisky new Handel Casts a Dramatic and Musical spellBy Benjamin Poore
(Credit: © Marc Brenner/Royal Opera House)
In “Alcina” seeing isn’t believing. Handel’s tale of an enchanted island, which sees the titular sorceress’ captives transfigured into birds, beasts, and shrubbery, speaks of the pleasures and dangers of illusion. First premiered on the current site of the Royal Opera House back in 1735, the opera speaks to a host of 18th-century preoccupations about the nature of appearance – trustworthy or fraud – and the magic of theatrical spectacle and illusion, very much Handel’s stock-in-trade.
This year has seen three new productions of Handel’s opera, from Opera North (directed by Tim Albery), the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (Francesco Micheli), and now Covent Garden directorial fixture Richard Jones. His latest new production for the ROH was the uneven “Samson and Delilah”, but in this playful “Alcina” he has offered a witty and imaginative realization of one of Handel’s finest scores.
A Striking Production
His version sees religious modesty face off against licentiousness. In the preamble, a group of Amish or Quakers, dourly dressed, are intoxicated and transformed into lusty beasts by the sorceress. It is into this melee of impulse and desire that Bradamante must go searching for Ruggiero in a thicket of relationships and jealousies.
Multi-era designs from Antony Mcdonald are striking and atmospheric. Alcina dispenses her enchantment by way of a huge perfume atomizer; her boudoir is one enormous bed, with shiny silk sheets, and sumptuous ruched curtains. The bed is alone onstage – an island of sensuality in a Puritan world – which hints at Alcina’s isolation but also independence of spirit, as well as (perhaps) the emptiness of the illusion – though Jones’ production is more complicated than that. As Alcina Oropesa wears a selection of little black dresses and struts in Louboutins; the iconography is all glittering couture.
The pastoral setting is created by rolling platforms with garish, fairy-tale trees and bushes, whose impact on the eye is both garishly unreal and strangely seductive (a sort of enlarged Bonsai garden); a well-stocked toolshed is the setting for a steamy tryst between Morgana and Oronte – both funny and sexy – but also furnishes the denizens of the island with weapons for their move against Alcina. (It may be that the forces Alcina has unleashed in her charges are more than she can handle.)
Jones’ production unpacks the paradoxes and contradictions of the artificial and natural (an apt intervention for an opera composed in the great era of landscape gardening and crafted semi-wild spaces in pleasure gardens and stately homes). When Alcina’s power is broken and her Quaker captives are restored to their former selves, literally buttoned up in their drab dutiful uniforms, they are bereft. Alcina’s enchantments imbued them with a liveliness that put them in touch with something vital and authentic, physical and sexual.
In a twist, Alcina and her scent return in the final scene, re-enchanting the world, and switching out their religious tracts for “The Joy of Sex”. Not everything has to be subtle to succeed in opera. The superb troupe of dancers that represent the captives inhabit their animal personages with unnerving physicality, and the dance sequences – one Bollywood-inspired routine is notable – have remarkable vivacity, thanks to Sarah Fahie’s choreography. The animal head costumes – especially that of the King Charles spaniel – have an uncanny quality that captures the strangeness of Alcina’s world, which is both illusory and immediate.
A Fine Cast
An international cast is headed by Lisette Oropesa, whose crystalline voice, supported by a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of breath, still ranks her as the finest lyric coloratura in the world. As a stage presence, she had no difficulty channeling – or should that be Chanel-ing – fashion icon meets nightclub singer. A special highlight came in the pitch-black loneliness of the Act two finale ‘Ah! Mio cor!’, after her powers have deserted her; a sobbing lament whose dissonances and leaps were precision-engineered to extract maximum pathos in a performance that was remarkably effective.
Mary Bevan’s Morgana was a wilder presence, both vocally and in terms of character, brimming with passion and fury, sometimes desperately so. If the vocal edges were a little rougher than Oropesa then this all felt in character, but she impressed with the slashing coloratura of ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, and in her achingly seductive Act reconciliation with Oronte. Emily D’Angelo as Ruggiero did most of the vocal legwork for the opera, and her burnished mezzo stayed the course well, with especially rich suggestions of ochre and umber and the sustained slower numbers; one sense a Ruggiero coming to self-consciousness as the piece progressed. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Bradamante had a wounded nobility.
The boy Oberto, often done as a trouser role, saw 12-year old Malakai M Bayoh sing three arias; he received a thunderous ovation from the packed house after some truly vile jeering from a lone audience member. His fearless professionalism in the face of such boorish behavior is, along with a fine voice, a sign that great things await the young lad. José Coca Loza as Melisso was a bluff contrast to Oropesa’s calculated sensuality, and gave Handel’s rugged bass arias plenty of welly, as well as some ink-black bottom notes; their solidity suggested a world of dumb matter and rough moral substance in firm contrast with Alcina’s slippery realm.
There was a hint of strain for both Bevan and D’Angelo, which may well be a consequence of the performance sitting at the slightly higher plane of standard concert pitch rather than the (now standard) shaded Baroque hue of 415; it is equally a challenge to let Handel’s music expand gracefully to fill a house of this size without the odd blemish, as was the case with Rupert Charlesworth, whose fine voice is otherwise very happy in this repertoire.
Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. The string players, for the first time in their history, had taken up baroque bows. Pairs of harpsichords and theorbos joined the ensemble, the latter providing an especially sultry jangle to musical proceedings. Whilst the vestiges of period practice were present, it is not a style into which the orchestra wholly settled, with some uneven string tones and a sense that the band wasn’t quite ready to depart from the more homogenous sound that is their usual bread-and-butter.
The two recorder solos, however, sparkled, as did the obbligato horns; responsive continuo playing won the trio a well-deserved cheer at the curtain. Curnyn’s tempi tended sluggish – not always helpful for a four-hour evening – but the livelier moments – most notably at the opening and close of the opera – leaped off the page.