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Desert island opera

11/29/1999 -  and 1, 4, 6, 9, 11 December 1999, 17, 19, 22, 27 January 2000
George Frideric Handel Alcina
Joan Rodgers (Alcina), Lisa Milne (Morgana), Sarah Connolly (Ruggiero), Christine Rice (Bradamante), Mark Richardson (Melisso), Toby Spence (Oronte), Gail Pearson (Oronte)
Charles Mackerras (conductor)
David McVicar (director)

Alcina's isle is often identified as Japan, or somewhere in the Caribbean, one of the places that once promised a new world of wealth, exoticism and freedom from convention and duty.  Ruggiero, imprisoned there by desire for Alcina, has to agree to be rescued by his warrior-fiancée Bradamante in order to found the house of Este and ensure that the Renaissance happens. His choice is essentially between pleasure and duty, or emasculating sex and heroic manhood embodied by his future wife, who is dressed as a man almost throughout.

The real action is the progress of Ruggiero's awareness of his enslavement and delusion, and of the fallibility of desire. But Handel's music expresses and externalizes the emotions and striving of all the characters in an drama that takes place, not in Bermuda or Ruggiero's mind, but literally in the theatre, the magic space where we in the audience indulgue our imaginary desires.

In David McVicar's visually beautiful and sympathetic production, the isle is itself the theatre, and the transformed animals the audience ensnared by the desire for spectacle and musical pleasure. The audience, dressed in white, take their seats at the back of an empty black stage, to be hidden by the facade of a bronzed theatre as Bradamante enters at the start and the fiction begins. Melisso, the representative of reason, is always exempt from the illusion -- he can retreat to golden-lit study full of books downstage left, which has an early-model ECT machine to disenchant Ruggiero and extends across the stage in the last act as reason takes over.

All the other characters, including an exotic set of dancers, appear and act in ultra-baroque eighteenth-century theatrical style. Alcina is a theatrical leading lady, ending up in a splendid, massively hooped purple gown, Morgana (here more a good-hearted slapper than the usual bimbo) a showgirl, in lurid pink and then in a tuxedo, and Oronte an exotic general in a sarong. Ruggiero starts off in flowing underwear, gets into a frock at one point (as well as being shaved in the style of kd lang) and ends up, like Bradamante, dressed as a redcoat, a symbol of imposed order at home as well as in the new world. There is plenty more cross-dressing in the chorus and dancers, but it is about pleasure and pure fun, not transgression, except in the way a principal boy and panto dame are transgressive.

The concept works fine, but McVicar really triumphs by staging the scenes for what they are, using externalized effects only to overcode and clarify the emotions involved. An amazing amount of the time the singers seem simply to stand and deliver (in Amanda Holden's lucid rhyming English translation), or walk about, working out the drama within the music accompanied only by conventional gestures. Some arias are accompanied by dances: Oronte's denunciation of women had a trio of fluttering, flighty dancers, and Morgana's first act finale had a full song'n'dance routine to reflect her exuberance in her (mistaken) belief that the disguised Bradamante loves her. But almost every scene was applauded on the opening night, because every staging delivered exactly what the scene was about. The snow-fall as Alcina realises she is in danger of losing Ruggiero was extremely effective and moving.

McVicar took hints from Nicholas Hynter's Xerxes and Christopher Alden's Ariodante, as well as Graham Vick's Fairy queen, though the overall result was completely integrated and original. As well as the suggestion of an ENO house style, there was another sign that the enchanted isle is the Coliseum in particular. This production is absolutely perfectly cast from ENO company singers and house regulars.

Sarah Connolly started off understatedly as the post-coital Ruggiero, and warmed up superbly to a wistful Me lusigna and a hearbroken Verdi prati, before blowing the sea-monsters away with Sta in hircania. Christine Rice as Bradamante sang fluidly in a beautiful low mezzo, not pushing the gender envelope at all but enchanting and more heroic than Ruggiero. Lisa Milne sang spectacularly as Morgana, her music adding a magical glow to her cheerful randiness. Joan Rodgers was a dark-tinged Alcina, not only beacuse of her copper wig and dark dresses, but in the intensity of her singing. Her two scenas in act two (mourning and then anger) were completely engaging. Gail Pearson was charming as the cuttable but emotionally essential Oberto (who else loves anyone straightforwardly?).

Mark Richardson, an old pro, was a benign Melisso, and Toby Spence, who also has a beautiful voice, a young and petulant Oronte who was always going to turn out all right.

Charles Mackerras directed the ENO orchestra in delightful style. The performance lasted four hours, including two intervals, but few of the audience would have missed any of it.

Incidentally, the facade in the set must have been that of John Gay's Covent Garden theatre where Alcina was first performed. Which, amazingly, is on the site of the Royal Opera House, about to re-open. The ENO seems to have staged a Covent Garden triumph just as Covent Garden re-opens. Pure coincidence, of course. Nothing to do with rival opera houses -- that only happened in Handel's time.

H.E. Elsom



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