Tuesday 25 October 2016

Welcome to club Amnesia: Handel's Alcina from Royal Academy Opera

Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
Handel Alcina; Meinir Wyn Roberts, Hannah Poulsom, Richard Walshe, Lorena Paz Nieto, William Blake, Emma Stannard, dir: Olivia Fuchs, cond: Iain Ledingham; Royal Academy Opera at the Round Chapel, Hacknet
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 24 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Handels'opera re-invented in a brilliantly engaging performance

Meinir Wyn Robert - Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
Meinir Wyn Robert - Handel's Alcina - photo Robert Workman
Royal Academy Opera continues its peregrinations round London, whilst the Royal Academy of Music's theatre is rebuilt, presenting Handel's Alcina at the Round Chapel in Hackney on 24 October 2016. Directed by Olivia Fuchs, with designs by Yannis Thavoris, lighting by Jake Wiltshire and choreography by Victoria Newlyn; Iain Ledingham conducted the Royal Academy Sinfonia. The first night cast featured Meinir Wyn Roberts at Alcina, Hannah Poulsom as Bradamante, Richard Walshe as Melisso, Lorena Paz Nieto as Morgana, William Blake as Oronte and Emma Stannard as Ruggiero.

The Round Chapel, a former United Reformed Church, was built in 1871 and taken over in 1991 by Hackney Historic Buildings Trust which restored the building from derelict. It presents a large U-shaped space with balcony (including cast iron supports) and any theatrical production has to create its own theatre space.

Fuchs and Thavoris placed the audience up in the balcony, using the ground floor nave space as the playing area. Alcina's 'island' (here the club Amnesia) was placed in the centre, a large black platform with the orchestra on one side and the rest of the floor space filled with white balloons. Access to the 'island' was via a walkway, but there were also trapdoors providing access but also allowing a little bit of 'magic' as hands would mysteriously appear holding objects. The lighting rig (all created specially for the show) included an arch over the island which incorporated lighting, a neon 'Amnesia' sign, the screens for the surtitles and even an improvised drinks cabinet!

Hannah Poulsom, Loren Paz Nieto - Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
Hannah Poulsom, Lorena Paz Nieto - Handel's Alcina - photo Robert Workman

The opera was performed with a single interval in the middle of Act Two, and was discreetly cut. The main loss was the role of Oberto. This role was added by Handel quite late in the opera's genesis and Oberto has no direct reference to the main plot and so can be cut. Also, Handel intended the role to display the talents of a young boy soprano and this contrast in timbres and techniques is lost if the role is allocated to an adult female soprano.

With a cast of young singers and a non-standard theatrical venue, this Alcina was never going to be straightforward. What Fuchs and Thavoris had come up with was a night-club presided over by the performance artist Alcina, her magic is the magic of performance, helped along by a generous helping of drugs. The result was an intriguing contemporary take on Handel's version of Ariosto's magic island, setting the work in a milieu with which the young performers were familiar. Thavoris's set was simple and effective, but he had gone to town on the costumes so that this Alcina was completely dazzling.

We were all sitting quite close to the performers, so the singers were presented with the challenge of playing effectively in the round with the concomitant problems of sight-lines. There was also the rather challenging acoustic of the church, which proved pretty lively. But Fuchs got some remarkably detailed performances from her young cast and the ensemble really did create some theatrical magic.

Emma Stannard, Meinir Wyn Roberts - Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
Emma Stannard, Meinir Wyn Roberts - Handel's Alcina - photo Robert Workman
This was a lively production, full of action; Fuchs is certainly not a director to expect her performers to simply stand and sing. But unlike a number of Handel productions I have seen, there was never a sense of the action being used to keep the interest up, it always came out of character and illuminated the emotional undercurrent. I found the production a bit over busy, but this was simply a question of my taste and overall I enjoyed both the concept and the execution.

Meinir Wyn Roberts as Alcina took some time to settle in, and for her first aria you felt that she had not quite got the measure of singing in the acoustic so there were tuning issues. But this was a performance which broadened and developed with the character. I was not quite convinced by Wyn Roberts' depictions of Alcina in love in the first half of the piece, and you were never quite sure whether this was performance or the real Alcina, it seemed quite studied. But as soon as things started to go wrong for the character, then Wyn Roberts drew us in. And musically she grew in confidence, so that the more tragic second half, where Handel asks us to sympathise with Alcina, was powerful indeed.

Lorena Paz Nieto as Morgana displayed a wonderfully bright and focused soprano voice which seemed to love Handel's music. She was not only adept at all the technical demands, but was able to create a real sense of character. Morgana is one of what Winton Dean called Handel's 'sex kitten' roles and Paz Nieto got her down to a tee, so we could not only appreciate her performance in 'Tornami a vagheggiar' but delight in the character too.

Hannah Poulsom and chorus - Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
Hannah Poulsom and chorus - Handel's Alcina - photo Robert Workman
As Alcina's current love interest Emma Stannard made a delightfully bloke-ish Ruggiero, with a nice line in sullen and sulky looks. But Stannard has a fine technique too, so that 'Verdi prati' was beautifully sustained and lyrical, which she dazzled with 'Sta nell'Ircana'. Hannah Poulson was equally impressive as Ruggiero's true lover, Bradamante, who arrives disguised as a man, and Poulson was just as successful as Stannard in her cross-gendered disguising (and this was set against the chorus who were all dressed in a variety of striking outfits which crossed and transcended gender boundaries). Poulson had a lovely warm mezzo-soprano voice, but allied to a fine technique so that Bradamante's arias really told.

William Blake was Oronte, here the club's heavy; a puzzled and put-upon bloke who loves Morgana and does not understand what is going on. Blake has quite a vibrant, high-tension tenor voice, but he got his voice round Oronte's arias in fine manner, and allied this to an appealing stage presence. Richard Walshe provided strong support as Melisso.

The Royal Academy Sinfonia under Iain Ledingham were on fine form, giving a good strong sound throughout and providing some lovely moments. There was some fine cello playing not only in the continuo but in the obligato from Morgana's Act Three aria, whilst the horns were in superb form for 'Sta nell'Ircana'.

William Blake, Richard Walshe & chorus - Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
William Blake, Richard Walshe & chorus - Handel's Alcina - Royal Academy Opera - photo Robert Workman
The Round Chapel is neither the most comfortable nor the warmest of places to watch nearly three hours of baroque opera, but the hours sped by and we were held entranced. This was the very best sort of ensemble playing with a finely balanced team all contributing something to form a greater whole.

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