Arts & Culture Music

Handel’s Alcina at the Royal Opera House

  • December 13, 2022
  • 4 min read
Handel’s Alcina at the Royal Opera House

Image: Alcina at the ROH. Left to right: Varduhi Abrahamyan, Rupert Charlesworth, Emily d’Angelo, Lisette Oropesa, Mary Bevan. Photo Marc Brenner

Alcina is every man’s idea of a problem lover. She is voracious and auditions all whom she lures to her enchanted island. Those who make the grade she promotes to be her temporary consort. Those who do not, she turns into animals with a puff of something from her magic urn (or in this production, an enormous perfume bottle). Mind you, this is one up from what used to really happen to those men lured to the top of a Sicilian mountain to worship the Carthaginian and Phoenician goddess of love and war, Astarte. If they failed to satisfy the priestesses they were hurled from the cliff-top castle walls of Eryx in the morning. On Alcina’s island, the director, Richard Jones, had them ambling about luxuriant gardens and the royal apartments as their host’s nicely dressed and well-fed pets; only their heads denoting a change of species.

Emily d’Angelo as Ruggiero and dancers in Alcina at the ROH. Photo Marc Brenner

This is one of Handel’s most gorgeous operas, in theory, serious but in reality, so full of magical moments that the interlocking love stories have their pantomime turns. Alcina is graceful, very sexy, and quick tempered: not a lady to annoy. Lisette Oropesa, her soprano coloratura lithe and elegant, catches the seduction and the rage splendidly. Her current number one passion is Ruggiero, inconveniently married to Bradmante (powerfully played by Varduhi Abrahamyan). In the original 1734 production, one of the first ever operas to be staged at Covent Garden, he was sung by a castrato. These days a mezzo-soprano usually takes Ruggiero’s role and in the Canadian-Italian Emily d’Angelo, the Royal Opera have the perfect fit. She is still in her twenties, tall and slim, and she sings Handel’s florid arias with magnificent ease. Best of all he has the sort of distinctive voice that made Janet Baker and Kathleen Ferrier such emotionally striking singers. Everything she sings makes one gasp in pleasure.

Luckily the rest of the cast are of comparable quality. Mary Bevan is one of the finest baroque specialists around and can act just as well – here teasingly clad as Morgana, Alcina’s nicer but naughty sister. She is almost as promiscuous but, in this staging, settles down for a bit of the other in the potting shed with the island’s gardener, Oronte. He is sung by Rupert Charlesworth, a worthy successor to the great English tenors in this repertoire like Anthony Rolfe-Johnson.

The evening I saw Alcina was that of St. Cecilia’s Day, which is also the date of Benjamin Britten’s birthday and the anniversary of Purcell’s death. The Royal Opera was inspired to mark it with this particular Handel work, so much a part of the tradition of the house but also of the line that runs through Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sadly, the designs sometimes undermined the magic – too sparse, often vulgar thanks to acres of pleated pink fake satin. A white wall with municipal blank doors became a tiresome distraction for irrelevant entrances and exits.

The conductor was Christian Curnyn, consistently unimaginative and letting the orchestra (who are not baroque specialists) sound clunky in comparison with the delicate embellishments of the singers. Only the lutenist and cellist in the continuo section matched their skill. Glyndebourne has the sense to engage the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment in such repertoire. London is stuffed with players of the same ilk. Covent Garden should, perhaps, consider developing its own proper early music ensemble.

For all that, with such utterly excellent singing right through the cast, and Richard Jones’ witty direction, this is a production that will stand plenty of revivals. There are some tweaks to be made and adjustments to the musical side, but if Emily d’Angelo can be lured back to sing more Handel (she’ll be doing it in Paris and Munich next year) London will be a happier place.

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Simon Mundy

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