Sthe dubious magic of witchcraft rarely casts a spell over modern, skeptical audiences, setting the stage for Handel’s opera of sorcery Alcine (1735) can be a serious challenge. Glyndebourne’s new production offers a solution: moving the play from a mysterious and enchanted island to another place of equal enchantment – the theatre; in particular, an Italian revue from the 1960s, where glamour, intrigue and simmering sex appeal are always in the spotlight.
Any decent cabaret should have spectacle, wit, charm, fabulous music and, of course, good singing, and this production hits most of those targets, even if the confusing plot remains stubbornly opaque. Francesco Micheli, making his directorial debut at Glyndebourne, plays Alcina the Witch as a sequinned femme fatale, draped in feather boas and furs, accompanied by a troupe of leggy showgirls. On Handel’s fantastic island, she transforms her lovers into solid stone or wild animals. Here, at Teatro Lirico, she simply condemns them to sit down and watch the show.
Some will find it too superficial, but there’s no denying that it’s one hell of a show. The grand set arias that make this opera a supreme example of Baroque receive lavish treatment from an exotic peacock-tail stage with descending steps. It’s fun, sassy, and slightly bonkers, while barely managing to maintain the psychological intricacies of Handel’s characterization, particularly Alcina’s slow disintegration as her magical powers slowly slip away from her.
Make impressive Glyndebourne debut as Alcina is Canada’s soprano Jeanne Archibald, which shimmers and shines through the role’s vast emotional range, especially notable in its lament Ah! mio cor. Another debut – long overdue – is made by the British soprano Soraya Mafi, whose dazzling, bright and nimble coloratura excited audiences across Britain for several seasons before Covid. She steals the show as Alcina’s scheming sister, Morgana: flirtatious, vindictive, and deliciously fickle. Her entry into a mermaid costume is outrageous; his lively account of the aria Tornami a vagheggiar is quite simply a success.
She falls in love with “Ricciardo”, actually Bradamante disguised as his brother, who arrives determined to save his partner, Ruggiero, who has fallen under the spell of showgirl Alcina. Scottish mezzo Beth Taylor as Bradamante is another Glyndebourne debutant and impresses with her incisive technique, while delightful soprano Rowan Pierce has a lot of fun playing the role of little boy Oberto.
American mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey sings Ruggiero, the central role assigned by Handel to the castrato Carestini, a sexual ambiguity that shines through in Micheli’s interpretation, adding an extra twist to the already breathtaking plot. She sings with an immense style, even if the line is sometimes too serious for her range. His farewell to the island, Verdi prati, was heartbreaking.
The extravagant costumes are by Alessio Rosati. Edoardi Sanchi’s design transitions seamlessly from stage to dressing room to backstage, beautifully lit by Bruno Poet. Mike Ashcroft adds a really nice choreography, very animated by the fiery playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the assured direction of Jonathan Cohen. Go. You won’t know more about the plot, but it’s show business.
Opera is cruel to its heroines. Think of Carmen, Lulu, Gilda, Tosca and Butterfly. Used and abused, they meet violent ends. But the world has changed since the creation of these characters. Aiming to start restoring the balance is a new experimental piece, The blue womanthe result of a collaboration between composer Laura Bowler, librettist Laura Lomas, director Katie Mitchell, conductor Jamie Man, designer Lizzie Clachan and video editor Grant Gee.
It unflinchingly deals with the ruinous psychological consequences of rape in a half-performance, half-film format. Four singers (Elaine Mitchener, Lucy Schaufer, Gweneth Ann Rand and Rosie Middleton) sit on a bare stage, accompanied by four cellists (Louise McMonagle, Su-a Lee, Tamaki Sugimoto and Clare O’Connell). Above them unfolds a beautifully shot film, in which actress Eve Ponsonby personifies all the women who obsessively search for the person they were before they were raped.
Bowler’s score is often stripped down and dark, as you might expect, but also surprisingly rich in texture, drawing surprising sound effects by combining four voices, four cellos, percussion and electronics. Lomas’ libretto is powerfully poetic, the singers propelling his lyrics around the auditorium like shards of glass in an hour of calmly contained rage.
One can wonder if this totally static piece is really an opera, but it doesn’t matter. It is an observation, a review, an exploration of the human experience too often avoided because it is too painful to contemplate. Music has the power to take us out of this world, but The blue woman shows that he can also challenge us to stare at his reality – and not look away.
Star ratings (out of five)
The blue woman ★★★