Theatrical illusion and offstage reality are the dominant metaphors in Francesco Micheli’s new Glyndebourne staging of Alcina. Lavish, unsettling and, at times, teetering on camp, it’s a finely crafted piece, though whether it ideally serves Handel’s great 1735 examination of the mutable nature of desire and transience of beauty is, perhaps, debatable.
Micheli relocates the opera from the Renaissance to a 1960s Italian metropolis in the process of reconstruction, its skyline dominated by cranes and a concrete skyscraper modelled on the Torre Velasca in Milan. Alcina’s enchanted island is now a nightclub-cum-variety-theatre (called Isola di Alcina) in the skyscraper’s shadow, with Alcina herself (Jane Archibald) both its proprietor and one of its principal stars, alongside Soraya Mafi’s Morgana.
Micheli and conductor Jonathan Cohen reinstate Handel’s often cut ballet music here, and nostalgic retro glamour – captured in big routines niftily choreographed by Mike Ashcroft – has effectively replaced the sorcery that keeps Alcina’s admirers such as Samantha Hankey’s Ruggiero hooked. At the beginning, Beth Taylor’s Bradamante and Alastair Miles’s Melisso plan Ruggiero’s rescue in a soulless-looking boardroom in the concrete jungle above. Later, as Alcina’s powers wane, forays into the club’s backstage areas repeatedly remind us of the fragility of the world she has created, though a twist at the end also suggests Micheli believes in its abiding validity.
The urban setting, however, means that the mutable natural world evoked by the libretto is now conspicuous by its absence, and Hankey ends up beginning Verdi Prati, not in a forest, but in front of a strip-lit concrete wall. And there’s a hardness of edge in tone and style throughout that doesn’t quite capture the sad ambiguity at the work’s heart, namely that Handel views the destruction of Alcina’s world as a moral necessity, while at the same time mourning its passing in music of often wrenching poignancy.
Wearing a striking series of, at times, outlandish couture gowns, Archibald sounds lovely in the title role, superbly rising to the challenge of her central Ah, Mio Cor, Schernito Sei. Ruggiero lies fractionally low for Hankey, impeccably stylish though she is, and it is Taylor, her voice dark and focused, her coloratura sensational, who gives us the evening’s most spectacular singing. Mafi does fine things with Tornami a Vagheggiar, while Stuart Jackson makes a nicely sardonic Oronte, handsomely sung and effectively played as the club’s maitre d’. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play with considerable panache for Cohen. The dancing, meanwhile, is great fun.
Alcina is at Glyndebourne, Sussex, until 24 August.