Friday 11 November 2022

Superb musical performances and theatrical dazzle do not quite add up to a satisfying staging of Handel's Alcina at Covent Garden

Handel: Alcina - Lisette Oropesa - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)
Handel: Alcina - Lisette Oropesa - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)

Handel: Alcina; Lisette Oropesa, Emily d'Angelo, Mary Bevan, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Rupert Charlesworth, Jose Coca Loza, Rafael Flutter, director: Richard Jones, conductor Christian Curnyn; Royal Opera House
Reviewed 10 November 2022 (★★★★)

Some superb musical performances help lift a production that seems to rather try too hard, but does manage some real theatrical glamour

The Royal Opera has periodically tried to do justice to the fact that Handel presented his final operatic seasons (1734-1741) at the 18th century predecessor to the present Covent Garden theatre, but the company has struggled to find a place for Handel's operas theatrically in the larger 19th century auditorium. There have been high points, but often the most satisfying Handelian opera performances at Covent Garden have been in the smaller, Linbury Theatre.

Handel's Alcina was premiered at Covent Garden in 1735, and the present Royal Opera company has tried to do justice to this. Zefferelli directed the opera at Covent Garden in 1962 with Joan Sutherland. An important milestone in the 20th century Handel revival, the production was evidently little more than a concert with gorgeous costumes. In 1993 there was a new production with a fine cast led by Yvonne Kenny, but the staging was theatrically inert. Director Stephen Wadsworth seemed to have decided to eschew magic completely and one reviewer commented that Alcina's island seemed to have been doused with agent orange.

Magic seems to be one of the problems with this opera. In an age when swords and sorcery epics are so popular, when a generation of children have grown up with Harry Potter, it seems odd that the theatrical world fails to embrace this. I am still waiting for a production of Alcina that follows the libretto, where she is a real sorceress, and the magic is an essential part of her armoury. Handel's Alcina is an Armida-like figure, someone all-powerful who finds that love does not respond to magic commands.

For its new production of Handel's Alcina, the Royal Opera chose Richard Jones as director. An intriguing choice, there is the suspicion that Jones' has become worryingly ubiquitous in London opera at the moment, what with La Boheme and Samson et Dalila at Covent Garden and The Valkyrie at the London Coliseum. But Jones has form with Handel, his 1994 production of Handel's Giulio Cesare at the Bavarian State Opera, featuring a huge dinosaur and Ann Murray in a kilt, created a sensation.

Handel: Alcina - Mary Bevan, Rupert Charlesworth - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)
Handel: Alcina - Mary Bevan, Rupert Charlesworth - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)

His approach to Alcina is certainly full of similar such theatrical magic, and judging by the enthusiastic response from the audience, has definitely hit the spot. When we were there (10/11/2022), there seemed to be plenty of people in the audience unfamiliar with the structure of Baroque opera and keen to applaud at the ends of A sections and B sections of Da Capo arias. That these people could be made to be enthusiastic about Handel, to be tempted to explore further, is a glorious thing. And I came away from the performance wondering who it was for, and whether I wasn't really the intended audience.

We caught the second night of Richard Jones' production of Handel's Alcina at the Royal Opera on Thursday 10 November 2022. Christian Curnyn conducted and designs were by Anthony MacDonald, lighting by Lucy Carter, movement by Sarah Fahie. Lisette Oropesa was Alcina with Emily D'Angelo as Ruggiero, Mary Bevan as Morgana, Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante, Rupert Charlesworth as Oronte, Jose Coca Loza as Atlante/Melisso and Rafael Flutter as Oberto. The production featured eleven dancers, but no chorus.

MacDonald's designs were dazzling and there was plenty here to please the eye. Jones' production was based around the idea that Alcina's magic was glamour, she was featured in glossy magazine-style photographs with a large bottle of perfume, and this bottle was the source of her magic power, one spray turned people to animals. Whatever you think about Richard Jones' theatrical style, his ability to read and re-create a libretto is legendary, so this was one of the first productions I have seen in a long time to feature Alcina's former lovers turned into animals. We saw this happening during the overture and the ten dancers all sported animal heads and formed an entourage of loving obsessives fawning round Alcina.

Handel: Alcina - Mary Bevan, Lisette Oropesa, Emily D'Angelo - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)
Handel: Alcina - Mary Bevan, Lisette Oropesa, Emily D'Angelo - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)

In opposition to this, the forces of normality were portrayed as being members of a Puritan sect, we saw them during the overture and from the middle of Act Two, Atlante was stalking round in full Puritan garb and handing out religious tracts. In fact, Jones seemed far less interested in Alcina's magic than in this opposition between the two forces. And here, Alcina was not so much a sympathetic portrait of an evil sorceress as a figure of glamorous fun and frolic who fails in love. In Handel's original, the largest number of arias (eight) went to the star, the castrato Carestini who sang Ruggiero, and here Emily d'Angelo also received a large number of arias and the opera became as much about Ruggiero's journey. 

Visually however, the production was very restless. MacDonald's scenery was largely moveable, and Jones took advantage of this, so that the setting was constantly in motion. The dancers spent much of their time wheeling flowers and trees around, and there was even a greenhouse for Rupert Charlesworth's Oronte. As Alcina's powers waned at the end of Act Two, so the visual splendour did too and there was a distinct feeling that Jones only really became interested in Alcina as a character from the end of Act Two, when she realises that she has lost Ruggiero. 

The restless style of the production was exacerbated by the extensive use of the dancers as ex-lovers wearing outsize animal heads, to sometimes disturbing effect. Whilst some elements of the staging seem to have been lifted from David McVicar's ENO production of Alcina, such as the dance sequence accompanying Morgana's climactic aria at the end of Act One, elsewhere the dancers frequently pulled focus during arias. But then this was a production which seemed to relish pulling focus, there were few moments when a singer was able to perform an aria without added entertainment on stage. Frankly, by the middle of Act Two, I was starting to weary of the theatrical style of the production and was finding that the individual elements did not quite add up to a coherent dramatic thread. What we had was a series of finely performed arias, but without a real feeling of drama. Whether because of what was happening on stage or in the pit, Act One never quite took off as a dramatic work, despite the superb singing. 

There was one further element to the production which, for me, sat uneasily. Humour. Jones never made fun of the characters, he at least treated them seriously, but an element of theatrical wit and humour was woven into the production, the audience was encouraged to laugh. Personally, I find this unsatisfactory, if Handel had wanted an element of humour, he would have added it (he did so, for instance, in two other operas from the 1730s, Partenope and Serse). Whilst some commentators are comfortable with this sort of change, I persist in feeling irritated that Handel still attracts directors who want to tinker with the dramatic sense of his works in a way that they would not with, say, Verdi's La traviata.

Handel: Alcina - Varduhi Abrahamyan, Edward Grint (cover Atlante/Melisso) - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)
Handel: Alcina - Varduhi Abrahamyan, Edward Grint (cover Atlante/Melisso) - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)

Long gone are the days when conductors would struggle to get opera orchestras to play with anything like period style, but there was the feeling in the pit that the performance never quite took wing. Christian Curnyn achieved a respectable style from the orchestra and speeds were always apposite, but it lacked the theatrical sparkle and bite that the best period (and period style) performances bring. The singers, however, were on glorious form and as ever with Richard Jones, whatever you thought of the production style, his ability to achieve fully engaged performances from his singers was remarkable. That Emily d'Angelo gave a fine account of 'Verdi prati' whilst awkwardly perched in a giant bonsai, or that Rupert Charlesworth managed to be touching in his final aria despite wearing only a pair of underpants was in a way wonderful and remarkable, a real testament to the artists, but you still had to question the dramaturgical reasons for these theatrical decisions.

Lisetta Oropesa was a magnetic Alcina, relishing the challenges of the role. When the going got tough at the end of Act Two, she responded superbly, giving us a profoundly moving 'Ah, mio cor' and providing vivid theatrical drama in her failed invocation to the spirits. Any production of Alcina requires a title role who can cope with the technical demands and give us theatrical bravura; Oropesa did this brilliantly, whilst rocking a pair of ridiculous heels. Who was this Alcina? We never quite worked that out. She was dressed glamorously, perhaps as some sort of lounge-singer. But as a person, Oropesa made us care for her as her world fell apart.

As Morgana, Mary Bevan definitely dazzled in her showpiece, 'Tornami a vagheggiar', but elsewhere she was touching too. Despite the theatrics and the virtuoso showing off, Bevan managed to make us feel for this Morgana, buffeted by love and in her Act Three aria giving us profound emotion. This was in many ways a star performance and was one of the reasons why this production was so musically strong, that Oropesa was surrounded by singers of equal magnitude and skill. 

Handel: Alcina - Emily D'Angelo - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)
Handel: Alcina - Emily D'Angelo - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)

Emily D'Angelo looked and sounded superb as Ruggiero, convincing as the rather shallow young man yet singing with ease and lovely firm focused tone. She managed to make Ruggiero rather less of an idiot wimp than usual, and benefitting from a generous allocation of arias, made the opera about Ruggiero's coming of age, his ability to see where his path lay. It is a testament to Handel's skill and theatrical nous that, for all the bravura in some of the arias D'Angelo made the most impact with 'Verdi prati', though she was impressive in 'Sta nell'Ircana' too.

Varduhi Abrahamyan was a wonderfully vivid Bradamante, robust in character but giving us plenty of finely focused tone and lively passagework. In many ways, Abrahamyan's was some of the most stylish Handel singing of the evening and I loved the way she managed to combine strength, focus and vividness in her more bravura moments. Rupert Charlesworth made a particularly vivid Oronte, and it was nice that his character was treated seriously for once. Perhaps there was the odd rough edge to Charlesworth's singing, but this felt all of a-piece with the persona and I loved the way he held the stage whatever was going on around him. Jose Coca Loza was a finely Atlante, delivering his aria with aplomb and managing to make the character's persona work in this production.

The role of Oberto can be something of a challenge. A relatively late addition to Handel's opera, the role was created simply to show off a talented boy soprano. Covent Garden seemed to have managed to find not one but two talented young singers. Malakai M Bayoh seems to have created quite a stir at the production's premiere on 8 November, and we saw Rafael Flutter in the role. Flutter did far more than just sing the notes, he created a strong theatrical character and was fully integrated into the production. His singing was far more than creditable, and for one so young he managed the trick of singing this music without seeming to have his eyes welded onto conductor, Christian Curnyn. And perhaps most importantly, he seemed to be having great fun.

Handel: Alcina - Emily D'Angelo, Rupert Charlesworth  - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)
Handel: Alcina - Emily D'Angelo, Rupert Charlesworth  - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Marc Brenner)

It seems perverse for a house Covent Garden's size to stage one of Handel's few operas with an independent chorus part, and then not use a chorus. But that is what happened here (and at Glyndebourne in the Summer). The choruses were sung by the soloists, though this meant that the lovely final chorus somewhat lacked its impact.

The production seems to be worrying tailored to singers with the requisite physique du rôle, does that mean that this was a one-off production (it is shared with the Met) never to be seen again, or that it will only be revived with this, or a similar cast? Will we be back in the rather embarrassing 'little black dress' scenario that played out with Strauss' Ariadne? I certainly hope not, there are plenty of singers I would love to hear and see in this production.

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