Opera Atelier’s first real venture into Handel is accompanied by some significant shifts in aesthetic coupled with some slightly puzzling throwbacks. The work chosen is Alcina. It’s not Handel’s best known (or, indeed, best) but it’s a perfectly serviceable example of Handel’s Italian works for the London stage. The plot, ultimately from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, concerns the sorceress Alcina who has an illusory kingdom made up of the souls of men she has ensnared. Her most recent conquest is the knight Ruggiero. His betrother, Bradamante, disguised as her brother, Ricciardo, shows up with Ruggiero’s former tutor, Melisso. Melisso has a ring which shows things as they are, shorn of illusion. Eventually they use this to return Ruggiero to his duty and Alcina’s kingdom goes up in smoke. Along the way there’s also a sub-plot involving Alcina’s sister, Morgana, who falls in love with Ricciardo to the dismay of her lover Oronte. In the original there’s also a boy looking for his father and a lion but they got cut in Marshalll Pynkowski’s version. In fact there’s probably close to an hour in total cut from Handel’s score.
Seasoned Opera Atelier goers will notice some quite distinct changes in performance style. The stylized “baroque” body language is gone replaced by a much more naturalistic aesthetic. Much use is made of projections which range from the very beautiful to the weirdly Gilliamesque. They are particularly effective in the “ring” scene showing Alcina’s lovers trapped in the landscape. We get to see a lot of the male dancers of the ballet in every sense. I think the last time we saw this much male flesh from OA was in Iphigénie en Tauride. The ladies, though, make multiple appearances in pumps and hooped skirts and twirl in typical OA fashion. I’ve never seen ballet used like that in a Handel opera but apparently, at the time, Handel was much influenced by the French model. I guess this may be why OA chose this of all the available Handel works. I can’t think of another with so much ballet music.
The cast is mostly made up of OA stalwarts. Olivier Laquerre and Krešimir Špicer (Oronte and Melisso) are very much a known quantity and are perfectly adequate here. Fair to say that, as per Handel’s usual (in Italian works at least), the low voices don’t get the most interesting music. So the bulk of the interesting singing fell to the ladies and they were uniformly excellent. Meghan Lindsey sounded in her element in the title role with clean idiomatic singing and tasteful ornamentation. Mireille Asselin was terrific as the slightly ditzy sister, displaying deft comic timing. Wallis Giunta was charming as the cross dressing Bradamante singing with great beauty. She’s quite bright toned for a mezzo which suits the part and leaves the smoky mezzo space to Allyson McHardy’s Ruggiero. Allyson was definitely the vocal and dramatic highlight for me. She also gets probably the best aria of the piece; a resolution aria accompanied by high horns. Here, of course, the horns are valveless and they were played from the one of the stage boxes. It was an interesting sonic experience. The chorus did a perfectly adequate job, singing from the stage boxes. David Fallis conducted Tafelmusik and it all sounded a little bit one dimensional and underpowered to me. That may very well have been a function of where I was sitting and the peculiar Elgin acoustic though. This is probably a show to see from close up or maybe the front of the Balcony.
So, enough interest in the staging and some fine singing makes this a worthwhile evening for anyone not totally allergic to Handel’s Italian works. Alcina runs at the Elgin Theatre until November 1st.