Handel had been very taken by the Italian poet Ariosto ’ s Orlando Furioso , which he used for three operas ( Orlando , Ariodante and Alcina ) by different librettists. This, the last of the three, he composed for his first season at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, after moving from the King ’ s Theatre in the Haymarket. That was now taken by another company, and the new theatre provided the means to perform more elaborate stagings, rather than the previous productions featuring famous castrati such as Farinelli.
Alcina was ideal for an innovative production, with a sorceress living on her own island and seducing any knight who happened to land there. In this opera he is the paladin Ruggiero, pursued by his erstwhile lover Bradamante, who is disguised as a man.
After performances in the 1730s this opera fell into obscurity until the 20th century, and to present it on a low budget the director , Marcio da Silva , has turned Alcina ’ s island into an office environment. Those who have fallen under her spell, and turned into non-humans, are marked by white paint on their faces, which they remove towards the end as the spell is finally broken.
In the meantime, stylised movements and interactions between the different characters yield to moments of high sexual desire and even a yearning for love among the young singers. This works well with a very youthful cast, giving them the opportunity to perform on stage after the Covid shut-down and exhibiting the musical and erotic energy that drives everything forward.
There are seven characters, including a travesti (trouser or breeches) role for the hero ’ s fianc é e Bradamante, who has disguised herself in order to pursue her lover and break the enchantment cast on him, and others, by Alcina. She is an Italian version of the Greek enchantress Circe in Homer ’ s Odyssey, and when the sorcery is lifted at the end, the wild beasts, including in this case even leafy branches and a wave in the sea, turn back to human form.
Under the aegis of Grimeborn Opera and beneath the big top of the Arcola ’ s outside theatre in East London, seven musicians gave a splendid account of Handel ’ s music, with excellent singing from the young cast, effectively drowning out the street noises from outside. Dalston today, the location of the Arcola, can be a busy place on a pleasant summer ’ s evening, with a buzz perhaps not unlike the Covent Garden of Handel ’ s day, where in 1735 this opera was originally performed. The audience too in those days would be far younger (and better dressed) than the Royal Opera ’ s audiences today, embodying more youthful high spirits and appreciating the shenanigans of the various characters.
With female singers taking the roles previously sung by castrati, the performance naturally embraces a modern gender fluidity, particularly since Bradamante is a woman pretending to be a man, and this production tends to elide the distinction between some of the male and female characters. Nothing wrong with that, but it is best experienced as simply a performance of Handel ’ s music , with plenty of sexual energy thrown in, particularly by Rachel Allen as Alcina ’ s sister Morgana.
A Message from TheArticle
We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please, make a donation.