Alcina’s love island casts its spell on Martin Thomasson
You all, of course, know the story of Alcina. She (disguised as a he) is in love with him (who sings a bit like a she), but he (who sings a bit like a she) is bewitched by her (not her, but her). Meanwhile, she (not her or her, but her) though adored by him (not him, but him), clapping eyes on her (disguised as a he) falls head over heels, so that he (not him, but him) wants to murder him (who sings a bit like a she). In other words, it’s just your everyday enchanted love island dodecahedron.
Opera North’s production, directed by Tim Albery, is very much a love island of two halves – one very fine, one superb.
A determined young woman on a rescue mission, Bradamante (a charismatic ON debut from Mari Askvik) strides onto Alcina’s island disguised as her own brother, Ricciardo, sizeable weapon in hand. Before long, she’s having to watch her apparently feckless beloved, Ruggiero (counter tenor, Patrick Terry), manly chest exposed to the elements, getting down and dirty with the sorceress, Alcina. It’s a wonder Bradamante doesn’t just pin them both to the bearskin rug with a single thrust of her sword!
Alcina’s sister, Morgana (Fflur Wyn) has a doting lover of her own, Oronte (Nick Pritchard). When it comes to servicing their enchantresses’ emotional needs, males here don’t do doting by halves – Ruggiero and Oronte are lacking only collar and leash (I daresay there are women – and some men – in the audience who view this as the world being, albeit briefly, put to rights).
Oronte’s charms are as nought, however, from the moment Morgana espies Ricciardo (Bradamante). As with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, we soon see earth hath no passion like a woman in love with a woman she thinks is a man.
The desperate Bradamante finally manages to free Ruggiero of Alcina’s power, by means of the more noble magic of her betrothal ring. While she and her faithful protector, Melissa (the redoubtable Claire Pascoe) seek out the source of Alcina’s magic intending to destroy it, Ruggiero escapes into the jungle, using the cover story of a hunting trip.
Oronte, not able to come to terms with Morgana’s infatuation, divests himself of his outer garments and heads off into the wilderness. (Unclothing is a motif in this production – used symbolically not salaciously – to signify the casting away of illusion and disguise).
A mobile, monochrome projection of a jungle scape (designed by Ian William Galloway), draws us deeper into darkness, foreshadowing darker psychological terrain ahead.
We achieve the interval and it’s all been good fun, splendidly sung.
Post-interval, an entirely different mood – more profound and even more satisfying – is struck. Love, and especially the losing of love, is a messy thing. Where so many operatic productions lean on broad stroke acting, hoping the score will carry the weight of meaning and emotion, Albery draws nuance and complexity from his cast. Handel’s arias speak with sincerity and truth of the pains of loss and letting also the bitter sweetness of love rediscovered.
With Alcina pressed against him, Ruggiero is not entirely free of his former enchantment; Oronte tenderly cradles the heartbroken Morgana by his campfire, before finally rejecting her; confronted by the loss of her one true love, the distraught Alcina, reduced to childlike vulnerability, builds herself a protective den from the furniture, before slumping forlornly out of sight.
Spells broken, lovers reunited, victims freed from magical encasement, the lighting rig descends to tell us artifice and illusion are now banished.
Conductor Laurence Cummings urges orchestra and vocalists into a unified whole and no one lets him down.
Patrick Terry deserves special credit for showing how thoughtful, diligent acting can add another dimension to an operatic performance. Fflur Wyn is marvellous (as she always is for ON). As for Australian soprano, Sky Ingram, who stepped into the role of Alcina as cover for the indisposed Máire Flavin, she tackles passion, poise, power and vulnerability, each with equal aptitude: Brava!★ ★ ★ ★ ★