(Freiburger Barockorchester with Andrea Marcon, Aix-en-Provenance, 9 July 2015)
Spare a thought for the modern opera singer. You spend years training and auditioning; you finally make it and become a leading soloist, a master of your craft; and then you find yourself at Aix, hands bound and blindfolded, singing while some guy you met at the first rehearsal last Tuesday beats you with a riding crop in front of a thousand-strong audience. At which point do you begin wondering, ‘Where did this all go wrong?’
This Alcina at the Aix-en-Provence festival is going to be a memorable one. It was memorable for me because it’s the first time I’d seen the opera, but it’s been causing a sensation even among more seasoned opera-goers. According to a completely unscientific poll (I talked to a few people on Twitter), some gave up watching the broadcast after Act 1. That’s a shame because the staging had a lot of very clever ideas and managed to tell the story clearly and well.
But there’s certainly a lot of sex. Baroque opera audiences are used to eyebrow-raising scenes, but this production has a strong BDSM streak running through it which pretty quickly turns from titillation to tedium. Few of the cast escape. Katarina Bradić’s Bradamante has scarcely arrived before she’s been press-ganged into frisking the nymphomaniac Morgana with a feather duster. And I doubt Philippe Jaroussky expected to end up lying between Patricia Petibon’s legs with his head up her skirt. There’s an awful lot of dressing and undressing – again, usually Jaroussky – and it’s all just a bit too much. It’s a shame because, with a lighter touch, these elements could have brought a piquant sexiness to a story that is, after all, about the exploitation of erotic power. But it’s overused and it’s brought on too soon. In the opening scene, a startled Bradamante and Melisso are welcomed to Alcina’s magical island first by the febrile Morgana and then by Alcina herself, who strips and ravishes Ruggiero before their very eyes. Sorceresses have an odd idea of hospitality, evidently.
As you all know, no doubt, the plot of Alcina is drawn from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. In the course of his travels the knight Ruggiero has ended up in the island kingdom of the beautiful sorceress Alcina. Taking a fancy to him, she ensnares him with her magic and, stupefied by pleasure, he loses all thought of duty and valour. Fortunately there are other people looking out for him: his tutor Melisso and his long-suffering, short-tempered fiancée Bradamante, are on his trail. As as the opera starts they arrive at the island intending to rescue Ruggiero and destroy Alcina’s enchantments. Time is of the essence, because Alcina has a reputation for tiring of her lovers and, Circe-like, transforming them into beasts or rocks or plants.
But their arrival adds new tensions to the atmosphere. Bradamante, as is de rigueur for any practical warrior maiden, is dressed as a man. Unfortunately Morgana takes an immediate shine to this handsome young ‘knight’, which brings poor Bradamante into conflict with Morgana’s rebuffed lover Oronte. The race is on to break the spell, bring Ruggiero back to his senses and escape from the island before Alcina turns all of them into wild beasts. But it isn’t quite as black-and-white as all that. As far as Melisso and Bradamante are concerned, Alcina is the enemy – in the original text it is a simple matter of Christian virtue versus pagan magic. But the libretto makes things a little more complex. Alcina has actually fallen in love with Ruggiero and towards the end of the opera she becomes a rather sympathetic figure as she begs for the love of the one man she desperately wants, but who – when he’s in his right mind – simply refuses her. The conclusion might be a victory for Good over Evil, but it’s also a small tragedy as Alcina watches her magic fade and all her carefully-constructed world crumble away.
Let’s just put all the undressing and bondage gear in a little box over there in the corner for the moment, and turn our attention to the rest of the opera, because there was actually a lot to enjoy.
When you have such a ‘magical’ story, you have to decide whether to try to rationalise it or whether to go for special effects, which might be prohibitively expensive, and which would have to be pretty creative to impress an audience used to cinematic CGI. This production comes up with a simple but extremely clever way to indicate the presence of enchantments and the difference between appearance and reality. The island becomes a mansion (it’s another of those two-storey sets with various rooms) and most of the action takes place in a grand salon on the ground floor, where Alcina and Morgana appear to their guests as beguiling, beautiful women. But on each side of this salon there are doors leading into shabby side rooms, where the betwitched Ruggiero never ventures. The women stride out of the salon in all their youthful beauty, but when they emerge from the other side of the door into these side-rooms, they appear as they really are: old women, their hands and arms wrinkled with age, their faces sagging.
It was a fantastic conceit: despite the thin walls there must have been hidden entrances at the back so that Patricia Petibon (Alcina) and Anna Prohaska (Morgana) can switch places with their older alter egos: respectively, Juliet Alderdice and Jane Torne. It was smoothly done and, although it felt like a gimmick at first, it soon became just part of the magic. A stroke of brilliance there. There was an equally clever solution to the transformation scenes. On the upper level of the mansion is a huge machine, into which Alcina’s drugged lovers (or, at the end, Bramante) are fed by conveyer belt. In one end they go, and out the other end they come as stuffed animals or birds. It was, again, done extremely well.
The singing seemed to be rather good, as far as I can judge on one run-through. Petibon made an impressive leading lady, managing to suggest Alcina’s sensitive side while maintaining her authority, and tackling some demanding arias without much sign of effort. I shall have to look up some of her other roles. Prohaska’s Morgana was also strong, although unfortunately she suffered the brunt of the S&M arias and so one doesn’t tend to remember her singing so much.
As Ruggiero, I thought Jaroussky was vocally stronger than usual – often he doesn’t convince me with his coloratura, but here he had a good level of snappiness and his gentler arias, such as Mi lusinga, were reliably gorgeous. Admittedly he still doesn’t have the greatest expressiveness as an actor, but the role doesn’t demand fire and brimstone. As his tutor Melisso, Krzysztof Baczyk didn’t have an awful lot of singing to do, but provided a doughty and capable presence, as able to whip up a quick bag of explosives as to dress his erstwhile charge in his ‘armour’ again. There were long periods when Melisso didn’t come on stage, and I couldn’t help thinking that he was off doing Manly Things like booby-trapping the mansion, while everyone else stood around and sang at one another. There was definitely more of the commando than the professor about Melisso.
Anthony Gregory’s Oronte similarly felt slightly underused, but came across very well in his vindictive Act 1 aria where he threatens the hapless Bradamante. There was a role I particularly liked, and probably no wonder, because I like to see women standing up for themselves. Bradić’s Bradamante took the role of miffed fiancée to new lengths, channelling a kind of Baroque Lara-Croft quality that left no doubt who’d be wearing the trousers in that relationship. Indeed, as the curtain came down at the end, we saw Bradamante furiously berating a quailing Ruggiero, while Melisso patiently held them apart. But quite apart from her acting, she also had a rich, warm contralto which occasionally soared up into some lovely high notes. Some of the biggest cheers, however, were for Elias Mädler, playing the boy Oberto who has come in search of his missing father (now unfortunately transformed into a stuffed lion). Mädler had a strikingly good voice, still a little uncertain in the lower parts but pure and strong in the soprano register. If he can sing Handel arias with such confidence now, it will be very exciting to see what becomes of him in five or ten years’ time.
Overall, a production which had some great ideas and concepts, and some good performances from a very impressive cast; but which ultimately let itself down by going too far. I’m sure that there’s always pressure on the designer to come up with something attention-grabbing in modern productions, but there’s a fine line between getting attention, and your audience thinking, ‘Oh Christ; not again,’ as another cast member gets tied to a bed. As I said with Catone, sometimes you’ve just got to trust the audience’s attention span. Otherwise you risk your carefully-crafted show turning into ‘the one with the shark / parrot / S&M’. And it’s a shame that this is going to be remembered as the ‘Fifty Shades’ Alcina when it could instead have been remembered for its very clever staging of the magical elements.
Ah well. To think that, when Jaroussky was so charming to us in Halle, he was beginning rehearsals for this on the following day! Poor, poor boy…