Tuesday 2 August 2022

Handel’s Alcina - a ‘first’ for Glyndebourne - joins other great Handel gems in the company’s repertoire such as Ariodante, Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo and Theodora

Handel: Alcina - Samantha Hankey, Beth Taylor, Soraya Mafi, Jane Archibald - Glyndebourne Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Handel: Alcina - Samantha Hankey, Beth Taylor, Soraya Mafi, Jane Archibald - Glyndebourne Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Handel: Alcina; Jane Archibald, Svetlina Stoyanova, Soraya Mafi, Beth Taylor, Rowan Pierce, director: Francesco Micheli, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conductor: Jonathan Cohen; Glyndebourne Opera
Reviewed 24 July 2022 (★★★★★)

Italian-born director, Francesco Micheli, brings style and sumptuous excess to Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s wonderful and lush staging of Handel’s Alcina 

Our correspondent, Tony Cooper, provides a second view of Glyndebourne's production of Handel's Alcina directed by Francesco Micheli with Jane Archibald in the title role. [see Robert's review of the production}.

Handel loosely based the libretto for Alcina on Riccardo Broschi’s opera, L’isola d’Alcina, set to a libretto by Antonio Fanzaglia. The original source of the story, however, comes from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando furioso, the source, too, for such other Handel delights as Orlando and Ariodante.  

The work received its first performance at the Teatro Capranica, Rome, in 1728, a theatre originally constructed in 1679 by the Capranica family and housed in the early Renaissance Palazzo Capranica. It was, incidentally, the second public theatre to open in the Eternal City but, sadly, ceased operating as a full-scale theatre and opera-house in 1881. In 1922 was converted into a cinema. Following the closure of the cinema in 2000, the theatre now functions as a conference and performance venue.  

Handel: Alcina - Soraya Mafi, Samantha Hankey, James Cleverton - Glyndebourne Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Handel: Alcina - Soraya Mafi, Samantha Hankey, James Cleverton - Glyndebourne Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Composed for Handel’s first season at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Alcina received its première on 16 April 1735. But like the composer’s other works in the opera seria genre, Alcina slowly fell into obscurity. A revival of sorts took place in Braunschweig (Lower Saxony) in 1738 but then it was shelved for nearly 200 years before a production was mounted in Leipzig (just up the road from Handel’s birthplace in Halle) in 1928. 

But come the Swinging Sixties, this forgotten three-act opera took flight and, indeed, took the operatic world by storm. Joan Sutherland hit the headlines in the title-role in Franco Zeffirelli’s stylish production at La Fenice in February 1960 seen a couple of years later at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden while Robert Carsen directed another super-charged production for Opéra de Paris in 1999 later seen at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Both productions featured Renée Fleming while Cecilia Bartoli wowed her adoring fans in the title-role just before Lockdown at the 2019 Salzburg Festival. 

For my money, though, Francesco Micheli’s production for Glyndebourne (the first time the opera has been staged on the South Downs marking Signor Micheli’s Glyndebourne début) is surely up there with the best and as for Canadian coloratura soprano, Jane Archibald (who made her Royal Opera House début in the 2013-14 season as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos) her portrayal of the sorceress Alcina is surely up there with the best, too.  

What a girl! What a voice! She delivered the goods in no uncertain terms. Her stage presence lovingly matching her vocal prowess, too. As befitting her witchcraft, she proves a dab hand at seducing every knight that lands on her magical isle but when tired of them ditches them lock, stock and barrel and uses her magical powers to turn them into stones, plants and wild beast as only a sorceress could do. But one thing that this seductive enchantress couldn’t master is conjuring up ‘love’, the most important item on her agenda.  

I found Signor Micheli’s production riveting and exciting to the core. He pulls up the drawbridge on Renaissance Italy and places the scenario in the northern industrial city of Milan in the Fifties and Sixties, a time of great promise, new building, economic growth and high living. In fact, when one entered the Glyndebourne auditorium one was faced by a front cloth depicting an abstract impression of the Duomo di Milano set against a detailed image of the Fifties-designed Brutalist building, Torre Velasca, a vast tower-like building forming part of the first generation of Italian modern architecture. Its name derives from the name of the 17th-century Spanish politician, Juan Fernández de Velasco, Duke of Milan. 

Therefore, Alcina’s island in Micheli’s realisation of Alcina becomes a burlesque nightclub named Teatro Lirico (perhaps it ought to be ‘Capranica’) but the action of the opera’s prologue featuring a small group of businessman hints that the theatre is at risk of demolition to make way for large-scale office development. The show running at the club is aptly named ‘L’isola d’Alcina’. How cheesy is that!  

And the club’s hostess is none other than Alcina with Ms Archibald looking the part from head to toe. A brunette sporting a long-flowing hair style and a fitting costume to match (elegantly designed by Italian-born designer, Alessio Rosati) she came over as a Fifties-style movie star echoing to a degree Anita Ekberg, the star of Federic Fellini’s iconic Sixties movie, La dolce vita. Hey, mambo, mambo italiano! 

Although Ms Archibald made a big impression on the show overall her sorceress sister, Morgana (sung so eloquently and delicately by Soraya Mafi) made a big impression, too, especially on her entry in the first act dressed as a mermaid lying on a high-moving gantry-type platform operated by a four-person stage team. The scene was quite remarkable and visually quite striking, too, with British lighting designer Bruno Poet (who has lit up so many stages worldwide) adding to the overall atmosphere and pleasure of the scene by conjuring up a fantastic lighting scenario. 

Overall, it was Edoardo Sanchi’s sets that helped the show to tick so freely. For instance, he created a marvellous candy-coloured free-standing set for the ‘island of love’ adorned by a couple of palm trees with a glitzy shell-designed throne atop of a half-dozen steps and a lot of fancy work in between. In fact, all his sets ranging from back-stage dressing-rooms to gender-neutral toilets were free standing constantly being moved on and off stage thus keeping the action of the show and its myriad of scenes fast moving. A couple of sets, though, that particularly grabbed my fancy was a stylish long glass-topped cocktail bar with high stools finished off by a criss-crossed patterned padded front with a golden-coloured back bar while a theatre box containing a bunch of stage-door johnnies conjured up the plush interior of Teatro Lirico. 

It was a well-cast show, for sure. The cast were gallant in their respective roles. Bradamante, Ruggiero’s betrothed, disguised as her own brother, the knight Ricciardo, was admirably sung by Beth Taylor and so, too, was Svetlina Stoyanova’s portrayal of Ruggiero while Melisso, former tutor of Ruggiero, was sung by Alistair Miles. Oronte, lover of Morgana, was dutifully sung by Thomas Elwin (taking over the role at short notice from Stuart Jackson) and James Cleverton put in a nice performance as Astolfo. 

Anyhow, I was impressed by Rowan Pierce in the boyish role of Oberto searching for his long-lost father, one of Alcina’s former lovers. When he finds him in the last scene, he lashes out at Alcina for her beastly wrongdoing. For the first time she finds herself wrong footed. Her magical powers are waning. 

But the moment when Ruggiero and his former tutor, Melisso, destroys the magic urn, the source of Alcina’s power, the game’s truly up for her. She’s abandoned, isolated from society and completely spent. Her former lovers return to being humans again and they all rejoice and sing of their joy celebrating the triumph of love over evil and magic. 

The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment (leader: Huw Daniel) conducted by Jonathan Cohen (artistic director and founder of the British early music ensemble, Arcangelo) spun their own inimitable style of magic in the pit delivering a fine and well-balanced reading of the score that didn’t overshadow the singers. In fact, the auditorium of Glyndebourne, harbouring such good acoustic properties as it does, is the perfect size for Handel and it certainly showed in this performance. 

British choreographer, Mike Ashcroft (The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne, 2012) created some amazing stuff for the well-disciplined team of eight dancers comprising Soledad de la Hoz, Chloe Dowell, Keiko Hewitt-Teale, Bianca Hopkins, Lily Howkins, Megan Francis King, Rebecca Lee, Oihana Vesga not least by some sumptuous dance routines particularly showy when the girls employed peacock feather fans in a grand burlesque manner. 

Handel: Alcina - Samantha Hankey - Glyndebourne Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Handel: Alcina - Samantha Hankey - Glyndebourne Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

By the way, Francesco Micheli becomes the fourth Italian director to stage a new opera production at Glyndebourne over its 88-year-long history following in the wake of fellow countrymen Damiano Michieletto, Franco Enriquez and Franco Zeffirelli. He should be more than pleased by his realisation of Alcina which, hopefully, will find its way to the Glyndebourne Tour in the not-too-distant future. 

Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Director (Francesco Micheli)
Set designer (Edoardo Sanchi)
Costume designer (Alessio Rosati)
Choreographer (Mike Ashcroft)
Lighting designer (Bruno Poet)
Bradamante, Ruggiero’s betrothed, disguised as her own brother, the knight Ricciardo (Beth Taylor)
Melisso, former tutor of Ruggiero (Alastair Miles)
Morgana, Alcina’s sister-sorceress (Soraya Mafi)
Alcina, a sorceress (Jane Archibald)
Oberto, a boy searching for his father (Rowan Pierce)
Ruggiero, a knight (Svetlina Stoyanova)
Oronte, lover of Morgana (Thomas Elwin)
Astolfo (James Cleverton)
Dancers: Soledad de la Hoz, Chloe Dowell, Keiko Hewitt-Teale, Bianca Hopkins, Lily Howkins, Megan Francis King, Rebecca Lee, Oihana Vesga

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