Handel Alcina opera to a libretto by an unknown author. Directed 2015 by Katie Mitchell (assisted by Dan Ayling and Robin Tebbutt) at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Stars Patricia Petibon (Alcina, a sorceress), Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero, a warrior enchanted by Alcina), Anna Prohaska (Morgana, Alcina’s younger sister), Katarina Bradić (Bradamante, Ruggiero’s former sweetheart), Anthony Gregory (Oronte, Alcina’s general), Krzysztof Baczyk (Melisso, Ruggiero’s former comrade), and Elias Mädler (Oberto, a boy seeking his missing father). Actors are Juliet Alderdice (the real Alcina), Jane Thorne (the real Morgana), Ian Hallard (Oberto's father/servant), plus Zoé Aldrich, Josephine Arden, Sarah Northgraves, and Anna Martine (more servants of Alcina). Andrea Marcon conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester and Chœur MusicAeterna (Chœur de l'Opéra de Perm under Chorus Master Vitaly Polonsky). Continuo: theorbos Daniele Ciminiti and Maria Ferré; cello Guido Larisch; harpsichords Andrea Marcon and Johannes Keller. Set design by Chloe Lamford; costume design by Laura Hopkins assisted by Blanca Anon Garcia and Clémence Pernoud; lighting design by James Farncombe; choreography by Joseph W. Alford; musical assistant was Johannes Keller; piano répétiteur was Jean-Paul Pruna. Directed for TV by Corentin Leconte; produced by François Duplat. Sung in Italian. Released 2016, disc has 5.1 Dolby Digital sound output. Grade: A+
Alcina was in Handel’s time a name for the meme or archetype of the witch on a magic island who seduced men and then turned them into swine. She was, of course, a great-grand daughter of Homer’s Circe, the witch who tried to ensnare Odysseus on the isle of Aeaea. In our first screenshot below we meet the hero Ruggiero (Philippe Jaroussky) singing “Verdi prati ” the most famous aria from Alcina. Here’s the text in an English translation by Amanda Holden:
Verdant pastures, leafy woodlands,
all your beauty will decay.
Perfumed flowers, clear flowing rivers,
though you invite me and delight me,
tis your fate to fade away.
Verdant pastures, leafy woodlands,
soon your beauty will decay.
What I loved and longed to cherish
is as dust, destined to perish
and return to barren clay.
These lines sum up the theme of the opera, i.e. can we in the joy of youth stave off the horrors of growing old? (Handel wrote Ruggiero for a castrato, a man who would in fact never lose his youthful voice. Today the role goes to a countertenor or a woman dressed in trousers.)
Director Katie Mitchell does a zinger job of transporting her ancient tale into the 21st century. The CIA of Ruggiero’s country has inserted a Delta Team into Alcina’s isle. The Team is commanded by Ruggiero’s prior comrade, General Melisso (Krzysztof Baczyk). Melisso has deputized special agent Bradamante, Ruggiero’s fiancée (Katarina Bradić), and she has disguised herself as her brother Ricciardo. Melisso and Bradamante are astonished to learn that Ruggiero has been brainwashed!
Who would have the power to seize the mind of our hero with his Purple Hearts and Medals of Honor? Well, it’s the sorceress Alcina — played by actress Juliet Alderdice, a mute role — whom we see next below in her cell. Her secrete weapon is a magic urn that makes her appear to be much younger. The urn (which looks like a misformed coconut and produces a blue potion kept in a chemistry class beaker) has been through multiple half-lives: its power now applies only to some of the rooms in the palace. Alcina still has, of course, the souls of her many conquests locked up in the animal, vegetable, and mineral specimens that we see on display throughout the palace and in the taxidermy workshop. But time is running out: Alcina wonders, will . . .
But in the central reception room, Alcina still displays her indefatigable sexual energy in an orgy of glamorous fashions, exquisite manners, and soaring soprano coloratura. The Delta Team members have been received as like honored guests (the first step in their future seduction). Imagine Bradamante’s distress as she watches her husband-to-be groan with delight!
Now we meet Alcina’s younger sister Morgana (Jane Thorne in mute role):
Morgana is also a soprano, but her tastes are more into S&M:
Morgana has her eye on the hero Ricciardo. The servants give him (her, actually, since Ricciardo is really Bradamante in disguise) instructions in bondage play. By now, Bradamante probably regrets signing up for this mission:
The twisted sisters have been rather lethargic lately. They still have on ice the body of their last conquest before Ruggiero came along:
High time for a transformation and some taxidermy! Next below you see the upper floor and the big, green transform machine:
And now Handel weaves into his plot a boy soprano Oberto (Elias Mädler) looking for his missing father. Nobody has the guts to tell Oberto that his father has just been transformed into a stuffed lion:
Bradamante gets a chance for a little chat with Ruggiero:
Ruggiero thinks this may be another magic trick, and Bradamante has to remind him of his earlier days with a real girl:
Now cracks are appearing in the Alcina illusion:
And is it possible that Alcina is starting to feel pangs of true love?
In her daily situation report from General Oronte, Alcina is warned that the new visitors “threaten the island.” She orders a Red Alert and counterattack:
She invokes her NATO treaty with the spirits of the magic urn. Terror strikes when she senses that the spirits have forgotten about her:
Suddenly real Morgana appears in the reception parlor. This is proof the magic is wearing off! (It’s also the only scene in the video when you see a real sister simultaneously with a magic sister.)
Morgana has to drink some blue potion to recover. And now she is also feeling pangs of true love —- alas, the only available man is General Oronte!
Morgana is baffled as to what one does in true love:
Oronte also becomes father confessor to Alcina:
In a long, brilliant aria, Alcina pours out her remorse:
Now Ruggiero possesses the urn and the blue potion. Will the heros get safely off the magic isle? Will Oberto find his father? Will peace and security return to the whole world? What will happen to the dear sisters?
Mark Valencia, reporting on the 2015 stage performance in bachtrack.com, thought Morgana’s early bondage scene a bit aggressive but went on to say, “Mitchell won me over. This [early S&M] scene was a clever manoeuvre, the first of many in a masterclass of Handelian stagecraft, because it grabbed the audience’s eyeballs and put them on the alert for what turned into a beautifully paced and realized production.” Alexandra Coghlan, reviewing the Erato disc in the August 2016 Gramophone (page 90) praised the “superb cast of singing actors including a mesmerizing Patricia Petibon” as well as Corentin Leconte’s movie-like video recording in which "every close-up yields more intrigue, more insight into Handel's troubled cast of characters." And on November 25, 2016, Coghlan in limelightmagazine.com.au went on to say, ”Petibon deploys her signature vocal histrionics to good effect, offset by the simplicity and directness of Anthony Gregory's Oronte.” Jaroussky’s foppish Ruggiero also confounds expectations, allowing mezzo Katarina Bradić to dominate the relationship with her superb technique and thick-spread tone.”
We report that the conductor, orchestra, and chorus performed admirably and are supported with excellent SQ. There are Italian subtitles for those trying to improve their opera Italian. So unless you are bound to traditional productions of Handel like Morgana bound to her bed, there is nothing ill to say about this A+ Blu-ray disc. (Well, the keepcase booklet is a bit skimpy, and there are no bonus extras.)
Finally, we are impressed by the way that so many geniuses have over the course of history brought us the many-faceted and psychologically pungent story of Alcina. Handel added his brilliant musical component in 1735, and the opera was performed with some success until 1738. Then it was ignored for 200+ years. Various performances since 1957 brought it back into the repertory in traditional settings. And now genius Katie Mitchell in her multi-faceted production yanks and plants Alcina firmly in the context of the 21st century.
Here’s a nice SD clip from this title: