A Thoroughly Entertaining Alcina


SwitzerlandSwitzerland    Handel: Alcina. Orchestra La Scintilla, Zurich, Chorus of Zurich Opera, Giovanni Antonini (conductor), Opera Zurich, 26.1.2014 (JR)

Alcina Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus
Alcina Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

Alcina: Cecilia Bartoli
Ruggiero: Malena Ernman
Bradamante: Varduhi Abrahamyan
Morgana: Julie Fuchs
Oronte: Fabio Trümpy
Melisso: Erik Anstine
Cupido: Silvia Fenz

Production: Christof  Loy
Sets: Johannes Leiacker
Costumes: Ursula Renzenbrink
Lighting: Bernd Purkrabek
Choreography: Thomas Wilhelm
Dramaturgy: Kathrin Brunner

This new production of Handel’s Alcina delights all the senses.

Alcina was one of Handel’s small number of “London” operas, composed for his first season at Covent Garden.  It fell into obscurity, as did most of Handel’s other operas, but came back into favour when used as a vehicle for Joan Sutherland in the 1960s, and more recently Renée Fleming.

The plot is fairly simple and fairly silly. The knight Ruggiero (a castrato or countertenor was prescribed originally but nowadays the role is usually sung by a mezzo) is seized by the sorceress Alcina from the arms of his fiancée, Bradamante, who chases after him into Alcina’s magic realm; Ruggiero promptly falls under Alcina’s spell. Alcina’s previous lovers have been discarded and turned into wild animals or to stone; but this time Alcina is thoroughly enamoured by Ruggiero.

Bradamante arrives on Alcina’s island dressed as a man for her own protection. Ruggiero suffers complete amnesia and cannot remember that he is married to Bradamante (shades of Siegfried). Of course as the opera progresses, Ruggiero realises his error and Alcina is doomed to see her lover follow his marital vows, return to his wife and Alcina’s magic powers and kingdom disintegrate.

Christoph Loy has produced this opera three times and his experience with it shines through in this interesting, humorous and attractive production. The set is a slightly faded baroque theatre. Act I opens with the set split horizontally, the upper part is the stage on which some witty baroque dancing accompanies the overture; the lower part is a convoluted wooden structure below stage, linked by a primitive sort of lift which allows Alcina to descend to meet her visitors. Act II is set in inter-communicating dressing rooms. Act III takes place backstage, behind the sets, which portray the crumbling kingdom. The baroque costumes delight the eye: Alcina has several regal costumes – when her magic powers diminish, she reverts to more ordinary modern clothes. The visitors to the kingdom are in contemporary dress throughout. There is constant movement on stage; the opera is lengthy (despite cuts) but there is never a dull moment, particularly when members of the ballet join the proceedings for some light relief. The singer’s Thespian skills are also tested to the limit, and they succeed magnificently.

Cecilia Bartoli, as Alcina, was of course the vocal highlight (especially when singing very quietly) but the other singers were by no means in her shadow. Julie Fuchs as Morgana was a sheer delight, Varduhi Abrahamyan made a forceful impression as Bradamante. Acting honours go to Malena Ernman as Ruggiero; the role is long and her voice began to run out of steam – but she made up for it with an excellent theatrical and balletic display. Fabio Trümpy was a more than competent Oronte and Erik Anstine a sonorous and imposing Melisso. Adding constant touches of humour was Cupid, a silent role, here acted by Silvia Fenz, interestingly portrayed as an aging and melancholic ballerina wandering rather aimlessly around the theatre and casting her own spells. At the end Alcina herself is turned to stone, or in this production a life-size lookalike revolving puppet.

In the raised pit, Giovanni Antonini (who co-formed the baroque ensemble Il Giardino Armonico) was a bundle of drive and energy and the results he extracted from the opera’s period orchestra La Scintilla were nothing short of exhilarating, with particular credit going to the silken strings, the stylish continuo accompaniment and principal cellist. At one stage Antonini got out his recorder and, rather unnecessarily I felt, played along. It was a pity that when the period (valveless) brass had their very brief contribution, it was less than glorious. Antonini took the opera at brisk speeds and convinced the audience that the opera is a masterpiece. At the end, the applause was rapturous.

John Rhodes