While the production lacks magic, vocally and musically, Glyndebourne’s Alcina is a triumph

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2022 [3] – Handel Alcina (1735, ed. Flesch): Soloists, Dancers, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Jonathan Cohen (conductor) with Tom Foster (harpsichord continuo). Glyndebourne Opera House, Sussex, 2.7.2022. (CC)

Samantha Hankey (Ruggiero) and dancers © Tristram Kenton

Director – Francesco Micheli
Set designer – Edoardo Sanchi
Costume designer – Alessio Rosati
Choreographer – Mike Ashcroft
Lighting designer – Bruno Poet

Bradamante – Beth Taylor
Melisso – Alistair Miles
Morgana – Soraya Mafi
Alcina – Jane Archibald
Oberto – Rowan Pearce
Ruggiero – Samantha Hankey
Oronte – Stuart Jackson
Astolfo – James Cleverton

Dancers – Soledad de la Hoz, Chloe Dowell, Keiko Hewitt-Teale, Bianca Hopkins, Lily Howkins, Megan Francis King, Rebecca Lee, Oihana Vesga

Vocally and musically, Glyndebourne’s Alcina is a triumph. The strength of the cast is remarkable, but the production, while often amusing, seems to get a little lost in itself. We are at the ‘Teatro lirico’ vaudeville / entertainment club of the 1950s or 1960s where the show is called ‘L’Isola d’Alcina’; the major casualty is the magic which is one of Alcina’s main characteristics. The stage feint of having a theatre within a theatre, complete with make-up room and (unisex, given the gender fluidity in Handel) toilets is clever but not especially revealing.; one has to acknowledge the sheer technique and imagination of Edoardo Sanchi’s sets though. Alcina’s jilted lovers here become masked, anonymous acolytes instead of, as the plot indicates, wild beasts. The brutalist shape of Milan’s Totta Velasca (1958) is referenced, while a programme still from Fellini’s La dolce vita of 1960 further hints at a time period.

The ‘cleverness’ extends to the Overture, where a succession of scenes passes before us. We immediately see construction works, and there is a business meeting of the firm ‘Chiaromonte’, where Bradamante and Melisso plan to rescue Ruggiero; a threat – or contrast – to the insular world of the theatre itself, where Morgana appears as an elevated mermaid. The show is sumptuous – Bruno Poet’s predictably superb lighting has a big hand in that. This Alcina is impressive, for sure, but threatens to drown in its own overflow of ideas. The destruction of Alcina’s magic is here shown as the opening, by Ruggiero, of a vanity case and, as the characters discover its contents, they discover their own selves. Perhaps as a result the heart-wrenching ending loses some of its power.

Soraya Mafi (Morgana) © Tristram Kenton

In counterpoint to this is the music itself, gloriously delivered. The singer who stole the show was Soraya Mafi, whose Act I ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ was the evening’s clear highlight, dripping with character, and with Mafi and the band in clear resonance. Mafi lights up the stage with her infectious vivacity; she somehow manages to match that with vocal agility and pinpoint pitching. Another young star of late, Rowan Pierce, was as pure-toned and bright as ever in the trouser role of Oberto. Nestling with Mafi and Pierce in this upper echelon was tenor Stuart Jackson as Oronte, whose stage presence is superb – he looks and feels right at home – and who never failed to impress with his arias. But maybe only Beth Taylor’s beautifully shaded Bradamante came close to Mafi’s performance.

Rather more uneven was the titular role of Alcina, taken by Jane Archibald. This was, at least initially, rather unsettled, only finding its feet later in the evening, and especially for the miraculous aria ‘Ah! mio cor’. Samantha Hankey delivered a fine ‘Verdi prati’ in a remarkably objective setting – a wall with strip lighting – part of an urban forest, presumably. Alistair Miles retains his astonishing stage presence in the role of Melisso. and James Cleverton is a fine Astolfo.

Micheli’s production will not please everyone – and certainly not traditionalists. The minimising of the ‘magic’ qualities at the heart of the piece seems to me to be its greatest shortcoming; but against this, the musical qualities of this Alcina are magnificent.

Colin Clarke

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