Alcina Revue – Handel’s opera dazzles at Glyndebourne
You’re in Gatwick, taking a seat near Café Nero after simmering in a two-hour security line. The tannoy scolds: “Icarus Airways regrets to announce the cancellation of its delayed flight to Queen Alcina Island. Ruggerio and Melisso, impetuous tourists, destroyed the magic urn containing all of Her Majesty’s magical powers. The destination has disappeared. Passengers are warned. Urn breakage may result in future travel denial.
Rejoice! Remember that thing in the Alcine brochure, babbling streams, sylvan clearings, those charming rocks, leaning trees, cute tigers stalking the undergrowth? It turns out they were all former tourists, detached as lovers by Alcina when they arrived. Boring, serial killer, she transformed them into elements of the island’s landscape. No return flight to Gatwick for them.
And let’s face it, Icarus Airlines doesn’t do much anyway. We’re all getting used to knee-scratching seats, oversized wallets shoved into the hold, that £1 digestive biscuit and paying the khazi, but, I tell you, that green thing, flying overhead. above 50,000 feet to save fuel, may collapse. It will end, if not in tears, at least in burnt feathers. I also miss their choice of Muzak cabin looping. here comes the sun everything is fine…
Double rejoice! Without risk of transmogrification, Alcine was available at Glyndebourne instead. A 40 minute jump from sweaty Gatwick. Point. Best to change from shorts to black tie in a baby-friendly changing room. There is a folding table for nails and cufflinks. You will recognize them by the bottle sign. Same for Glyndebourne.
This year Alcine is a dazzling production from the director Francesco Micheli. Glyndebourne has earned a deserved reputation as a favorite venue for Handel’s operas. The acoustics of the new house, completed in 1994, are perfectly suited to Handel’s music. Micheli reinforced this reputation. His production invokes the praise Handel received from his admirer, Mary Pendarves, in 1735, comparing him to “a necromancer amidst his enchantments”.
Step into the shoes of Micheli’s masterful handling of this psychological thriller with the help of Alexandra Coughlan, Glyndebourne’s informative spin doctor, in a short video.
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Alcine was composed in 1735, finding Handel at the height of his musical and presentational powers. It was a commercially savvy opera directed against Nobility Opera, a competing production company that had moved the German composer from his beloved Kings Theatre. His lease was not renewed. Theatrical competition in 1730s London was fierce.
The forced decampment to Covent Garden had its advantages. There was room for more sets and an increase in the special effects dial. Troupes of French dancers and a choir were on hand, to vary the traditional mix of da capo arias and recitatives, which could make the story awkward.
Handel didn’t need focus groups to firmly take the pulse of popular culture. Alcine — part of a trilogy including Orlando and Ariodanteall based on Ariosto’s epic poem, furious orlando – offered a show, featured singers and proper sexual innuendo, all supporting a clear moral message.
Magic settings always help. Witchcraft fails. Humanity wins. Rationalism, a very Whig theme of the time, triumphs. A Tory Alcina is said to have dodged an interview with Andrew Neil, stormed Downing Street, turned her opponents into stone suppliants – Cabinet ministers – and ‘Got Taxcraft Done’.
Then there is the sheer beauty of the music. A commentator at the time, Charles Burney, called the tunes “uncommon spirit”. Each character has one. And a madmanAct II – Orontes, lover of Morgano; Verdi PratiAct II — Ruggiero’s unforgettable ode to the potential illusions of beauty; BarbaricAct III, — Oberto, a young boy in search of his transformed father; Non è amoreAct III — a trio of Ruggiero, Alcina and Bradamante.
The blockbusters keep coming, each crafted with Handel’s consummate skill. By Alcina Handel’s time recitatives were getting shorter, with more of the action being pushed forward by arias. It was less about characters declaiming to the audience than part of the plot. Thus, the rhythm of the action was not interrupted. Important to keep distracted 18th century viewers on their toes.
The plot is complex. We have surtitles. Back then, a synopsis was pre-released to the public, long before a performance, otherwise no one would really have a clue what was going on.
The opera takes place on a magical island belonging to Alcina – a beautiful but dangerous enchantress, who seduces all men who land there, turning them into rocks, wild animals, etc. when they are bored.
His latest victim is the dashing knight Ruggiero, forcing his fiancée Bradamante (along with her guardian Melissa) to follow him to the island, disguised as a man, “Ricciardo”. She aims to free him using a magic ring, which can break Alcina’s spell.
However, the plan goes awry, with a modern twist, when Alcina’s sister, Morgana, falls in love with “Ricciardo” and abandons her former lover, Orontes, causing general chaos. This infamous character, General Mayhem, swings in and out of action with frightening regularity.
Melissa finally manages to slip the magic ring on Ruggiero’s finger, who suddenly sees the island as the desert of abandoned lovers that it really is. He and Bradamante hatch a plan to escape, but Alcina finds out and is heartbroken – she had truly fallen in love with Ruggiero. Will the vengeful witch let them go? Then the urn is shattered and Alcina’s illusion is shattered along with it.
The cast was strong. Canadian soprano, Jane Archibald, Alcina, passed through the difficult proving ground of an Adler Fellowship at the San Francisco Opera and recently performed in Shanghai, Vienna and Frankfurt. I see she has to sing the role of Angelica in Handel Orlando, at the Châtelet theater in Paris. Bucket list.
It can carve out a place as a “must” for Handel’s intricate pieces. With an unwavering voice, she knows how to put the fury in furious – and Alcina’s arias contain much of this‚ and invoke the pathos at a glance, essential in her Act III aria when the spirits fail to answer her call, and she realizes that her spell is finally broken.
Beth Taylor, the Scottish mezzo-soprano Bradamante, comes from the Royal Conservatory of Scotland and is on the verge of a great international career. Berlin, Nancy and Basel were stepping stones to Glyndebourne. She slashed a panoply of time card records and played his dual role – Ricciardo – with panache.
Melisso was Alastair Miles, Bass, a familiar of Glyndebourne; Morgane, Soraya Mafi, soprano; Ruggiero, Samantha Hankey, mezzo-soprano, the evening of my visit, or Svetlina Stoyanova; Oronte, tenor Stuart Jackson, another experienced Glyndebourne hand; and Astolfo, James Cleverton, baritone, another Glasgow Conservatory product.
Driven by jonathan cohen, artistic director and founder of the British early music ensemble Arcangelo, who knows his Handelian repertoire perfectly, the ensemble and the orchestra made Handel sparkle. The overabundance of musical delights almost matched the excesses of Middle Wallop Dining.
The set designer, Edoardo Sanchi, evoked a timeless setting and resisted the urge of recent modern productions to point that timeless moral somewhere like a brickyard in Barnsley. The whole shimmered with the magic of the room.
As always, the Glyndebourne setting was also magical. A bonus was dining next to a table hosted by Danielle de Niese, lyric soprano Chatelaine from Glyndebourne. Her table card descriptor was, correctly, Danielle Christie.
She married Gus Christie, owner of Glyndebourne Manor House in 2009 and has lived in Sussex ever since. I don’t know who she charmed at her table, but her presence certainly charmed ours. His urn remains intact!
Alcina lives on Glyndebourne website in August. I can’t wait for recovery.
And something else!
Stefan Soltész, the Hungarian conductor with a dazzling European reputation, who shaped his profession as musical assistant to the great Karl Böhm from the late 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s, collapsed in the gallery of the National Theater from Munich on July 22. He died in hospital at the age of 73.
Soltész was in full swing, doing what he loved most, conducting Richard Strauss’ opera bouffe, Die schweigsame Frau (The silent woman).
He was an undramatic conductor – in the best sense of the word! He respected composers, musicians and directors. No hissing.
The extent of his experience testifies to his recognized skills. He was in constant demand, invited to conduct in all the major opera houses in Germany, as well as in Vienna, Paris, Rome, Budapest, Warsaw, Amsterdam, London, at the festivals of Aix-en-Provence, Glyndebourne and Savonlinna, and in Buenos Aires, Japan and the United States.
What distinguished his work, whatever its wide repertoire – be it Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker, Jacques Offenbach or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – was the care with which he revealed the texture of Partition. Everything was always clear, distinct, luminous.
For him, the work of art he had been asked to unveil came first, his musicians second, his ego a languid third. While it’s not possible to ask his opinion on the matter, dying in harness seems, somehow, on point.