You are at Gatwick, dossing down near Café Nero after stewing in a two-hour security line. The tannoy booms: “Icarus Airways regrets to announce the cancellation of its delayed flight to the Island of Queen Alcina. Ruggerio and Melisso — impetuous tourist yobs — have destroyed the magic urn containing all Her Majesty’s magic powers. The destination has vanished. Passengers are warned. Urn-smashing may result in a future refusal of travel.”
Rejoice! Remember that stuff in the Alcina brochure, babbling streams, sylvan glades, those charming rocks, leaning trees, cute tigers stalking the undergrowth? Turns out they were all former tourists, seconded as lovers by Alcina on arrival. Easily bored, a serial dumper, she transformed them into elements of the island’s landscape. No return flights to Gatwick for them.
And let’s face it, Icarus Airlines isn’t up to much anyway. We’re all getting used to knee-scraping seats, oversized wallets forcibly stowed in the hold, that £1 digestive biscuit, and paying for the khazi, but, I tell you, this green thing, flying above 50,000 feet to save fuel, risks meltdown. It will end, if not in tears, at least in scorched feathers. I’m also bored with their choice of looping cabin Muzak. Here Comes the Sun is all very well…
Double rejoice! With zero risk of transmogrification, Alcina was available at Glyndebourne instead. A 40-minute hop from sweaty Gatwick. Tip. Best to swap from shorts to black tie in a baby-changing friendly loo. There’s a fold-down table for the studs and cufflinks. You will recognise them from the bottle sign. Same for Glyndebourne.
This year’s Alcina is a dazzling production by director Francesco Micheli. Glyndebourne has carved a deserved reputation as the go-to venue for Handel operas. The acoustics of the new house, completed in 1994, suit Handel’s music perfectly. Micheli has enhanced that reputation. His production invokes the encomium Handel received from his admirer, Mary Pendarves, in 1735, comparing him to a “necromancer in the midst of his enchantments”.
Get under the skin of Micheli’s masterful handling of this psychological thriller with the help of Alexandra Coughlan, Glyndebourne’s informative spin doctor, in a short video.
Alcina was composed in 1735, finding Handel at the height of his musical and presentational powers. It was a commercially savvy opera directed against The Opera of the Nobility, a competitor production company that had displaced the German composer from his beloved Kings Theatre. His lease was not renewed. Theatre competition in 1730’s London was cutthroat.
The forced decampment to Covent Garden had benefits. There was room for more scenery and a turn-up on the special effects dial. Troupes of French dancers and a chorus were available, to vary the traditional mix of da capo arias and recitatifs, which could render the narrative clunky.
Handel needed no focus groups to put his finger firmly on the pulse of popular culture. Alcina — part of a trilogy including Orlando and Ariodante, all based on Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso — offered spectacle, star singers, and decorous sexual innuendo, all supporting a clear moral message.
Magical settings always help. Sorcery fails. Humanity wins. Rationalism — a very Whig theme of the time — triumphs. A Tory Alcina would have ducked an interview with Andrew Neil, stormed Downing Street, transformed her opponents into stone supplicants — Cabinet Ministers — and “Got Taxcraft Done”.
Then, there is the sheer beauty of the music. A commentator of the time, Charles Burney, called the arias of “uncommon spirit”. Every character has one. E un folle, Act II — Oronte, lover of Morgano; Verdi Prati, Act II — Ruggiero’s unforgettable ode to the potential delusions of beauty; Barbara, Act III, — Oberto, a young boy searching for his transformed father; Non è amore, Act III — a trio of Ruggiero, Alcina and Bradamante.
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The blockbusters just keep coming, every one crafted with Handel’s consummate skill. By the era of Alcina Handel was shortening recitatives, more of the action being driven forward by arias. They were less about characters declaiming to the audience, and more an integral part of the plot. So, the pace of action was unbroken. Important for keeping distracted 18th-century audiences on their toes.
The plot is complex. We have surtitles. Back in the day, a synopsis was pre-circulated to audiences, well in advance of a performance, else no one would really have a clue about what was going on.
The opera is set on a magical island belonging to Alcina — a beautiful but dangerous enchantress, who seduces every man who lands there, transforming them into rocks, wild animals etc. when bored.
Her latest victim is dashing knight Ruggiero, causing his fiancée Bradamante (along with her guardian Melissa) to follow him to the island, disguised as a man, ‘Ricciardo’. She aims to free him with the help of a magic ring, which can break Alcina’s spell.
However, the plan goes awry, with a modern twist, when Alcina’s sister, Morgana, is smitten with “Ricciardo” and abandons her previous lover, Oronte, causing general mayhem. That infamous character, General Mayhem, rides in and out of the action with frightening regularity.
Melissa eventually manages to slip the magic ring onto Ruggiero’s finger, who suddenly sees the island for the wasteland of discarded lovers it really is. He and Bradamante hatch a plan to escape, but Alcina discovers and is heartbroken — she had fallen genuinely in love with Ruggiero. Will the vengeful sorceress let them leave? Then, the urn is smashed and Alcina’s illusion is shattered with it.
The cast was strong. Canadian Soprano, Jane Archibald, Alcina, has been through the tough proving ground of an Adler scholarship at San Francisco Opera and has sung recently in Shanghai, Vienna and Frankfurt. I see she is scheduled to sing the role of Angelica in Handel’s Orlando, at Paris’ Châtelet theatre. Bucket list.
She can carve a niche as a “must” for complex Handel parts. With an unwavering voice, she knows how to put the fury in furioso — and Alcina’s arias contain plenty of that ‚ and summon up pathos in a trice, essential in her Act III aria when the spirits don’t respond to her summons, and she realises her spell is finally broken.
Beth Taylor, the Scottish mezzo-soprano, Bradamante, is a product of The Royal Conservatory of Scotland and on the brink of a major international career. Berlin, Nancy and Basel have been steppingstones to Glyndebourne. She has notched up an array of recordings on the scorecard and acted her dual role — Ricciardo — with panache.
Melisso was Alastair Miles, Bass, a Glyndebourne familiar; Morgana, Soraya Mafi, soprano; Ruggiero, Samantha Hankey, mezzo-soprano, on the night of my visit, or Svetlina Stoyanova; Oronte, Stuart Jackson tenor, another experienced Glyndebourne hand; and Astolfo, James Cleverton, baritone, another product of Glasgow’s Conservatoire.
Conducted by Jonathan Cohen, Artistic Director and founder of the British early music ensemble Arcangelo, who knows his Handel repertoire inside out, the ensemble and orchestra made Handel fizz. The surfeit of musical delights almost matched the excesses of Middle Wallop Dining.
Set designer, Edoardo Sanchi, evoked a timeless setting and resisted the need in modern recent productions to point this timeless moral from somewhere like a brickworks in Barnsley. The set shimmered with the magic of the piece.
As always, the Glyndebourne setting was magical, too. A bonus was dining next to a table hosted by Danielle de Niese, Glyndebourne’s lyric soprano Chatelaine. Her table card descriptor was, correctly, Danielle Christie.
She married Gus Christie, owner of Glyndebourne Manor House in 2009 and has lived in Sussex since. I don’t know who she was charming at her table, but her presence certainly charmed ours. Her urn remains unbroken!
Alcina goes live on Glyndebourne’s website in August. I can’t wait for the reprise.
And Another Thing!
Stefan Soltész, the Hungarian conductor with a sky-high European reputation, who shaped his craft as musical assistant to the great Karl Böhm from the late 70s to the early 80s, collapsed at the rostrum of the Munich National Theater on 22 July. He died in hospital, aged 73.
Soltész was in full swing, doing what he enjoyed best, conducting Richard Strauss’ opera buffa, 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 hissy fits.
His breadth of experience spoke to his acknowledged skills. He was in constant demand, guest conducting at all major opera houses in Germany, as well as Vienna, Paris, Rome, Budapest, Warsaw, Amsterdam, London, at the festivals in Aix-en-Provence, Glyndebourne and Savonlinna, and in Buenos Aires, Japan and the USA.
What distinguished his work, regardless of his wide repertoire — whether Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker, Jacques Offenbach or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — was the care with which he revealed the texture of a score. 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 languishing third. Although it is not possible to seek his opinion on the matter, to die in harness seems, somehow, fitting.