Betrothed, bewitched, betrayed, beloved

Traditore! T’amo tanto; puoi lasciarmi sola in pianto, oh dei! perché?: “Traitor! I love you so much; can you possibly leave me alone in tears? Gods, why? This tormented opening line to the aria “Ah! mio cor!” in Act II of Alcina marks a turning point. By this moment two entwined, deceitful love stories have revealed themselves for what they are: Ruggiero, bewitched by the sorceress Alcina (Jane Archibald), has finally fought off her spell to realize it is his betrothed, Bradamante, whom he truly loves. Bradamante (Beth Taylor), cross-dressed as a man named Ricciardo to search for her ensnared beloved, has inadvertently caused Alcina’s sister, Morgana, to fall in love with her. “I gave you my heart already”, Morgana sings at the end of Act I. “I trust you will be my love; but you will be too cruel.”

Alcina, one of Handel’s later operas, follows Bradamante’s attempts to bring her beloved back to his senses. She ultimately succeeds, but at a price. Deception, employed both by Alcina and Bradamante, is conceived as both the cause of heartache and its byproduct, used by one as a means of entrapment and the other as a way to recapture true love. Its cost is self-doubt and, since both have been victims of deceit, Ruggiero and Morgana have to find a path back to self-belief.

The cross-dressing, assumed names and bungled rescue missions might suggest that Alcina is an archetype of baroque opera. What makes it unusual, however, is its morally ambiguous amalgam of a happy ending and a powerful sense of love’s shattering potential. Francesco Micheli’s new staging at Glyndebourne reimagines Alcinabased on Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, in the twentieth century. We are torpedoed into the modernizing, high-octane world of 1960s Milan, where the neon lights of the Teatro Lirico’s “Isola di Alcina” (Alcina’s Island) shimmer from above and construction cranes hang, vertiginous, at the distance.

Transplanting an opera from one era into another is a common practice, yet it operates in an uncomfortable gray area and is seldom without problems. Being an opera with a particularly convoluted plot, Alcina sits at the trickier end of the modernization spectrum. Even if there is now a consensus that successful stagings are those loyal to the spirit, not the letter, of a piece, the balance required to pull it off is hard to find. At first Micheli’s production appears to have bluntly replaced original references with kitschy, modern substitutes: instead of an island, Alcina rules over a Milanese variety theater; her bewitched male suitors are not turned into rocks or beasts, as in the Renaissance telling, but appear as enraptured theater spectators sporting animal masks; and in lieu of a seventeenth-century Italian town, Bradamante and Ruggiero’s old tutor, Melisso, plan Ruggiero’s rescue from a gray boardroom in the shadow of a soulless urban sprawl.

But observant audience members are rewarded; elements of a more traditional Alcina can be found in the details of this gender-bending production. The glitzy shipwreck in Alcina’s wig and Morgana’s mermaid’s tail look as though they have been borrowed from Dita Von Teese’s wardrobe, but they are reminders that this glamorous Italian theater is itself a kind of island. Posters bearing the names Circe and Orlando refer back to the Greek goddess who could turn people into animals, and perhaps to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the literary, transgender descendant of Ariosto’s original Orlando Furioso.

The setting in a theater is an appropriate, if perhaps a little obvious, backdrop for an opera questioning the nature of reality, trust and deception. Alcina uses magic to deceive men into loving her, but with little expression of her sorcery, this key element of the production becomes insignificant. Perhaps this is what allows for an unusual moment of empathy. Theatrics aside, when Ruggiero is eventually disabused of his false infatuation with Alcina and rejoins his fiancée, Bradamante, Alcina is bereft. She had ensnared him with her powers, but her love for him, it turns out, was sincere. Experiencing unrequited love is what causes Alcina to lose her powers, and at last, in part thanks to Archibald’s poised delivery, we feel sympathy for our villain. It is the greatest moment of realism in the opera.

The limitations of Micheli’s urban setting are stark when music about the beauties of nature, evanescent though they be, finds no analogy at all on stage. When Ruggiero, played by Samantha Hankey, sings the celebrated aria “Verdi prati” (“Green meadows”) on a bare concrete set, two slim shards of blue neon light on the wall behind him, it makes little sense.

No matter how Alcina is staged, its glut of perfectly formed arias is a feat even by Handel’s standards. Taylor singing “Tornami a vagheggiar”, backed by an agile and ravishing chorus of dancers, was a highlight, her coloratura perfectly suited to an aria whose spare emotional power lies in its melding of lively melodies and disconsolate lyrics. Archibald also gave a convincing performance as a woman in love and later scorned. “Ah! mio cor”, a cri de coeur that is one of the most poignant arias in the opera, was sensitively sung, her vibrato never overdone. Singing of her broken heart into an empty mirror while facing the audience, Archibald’s delivery of the aria was inspired.

Underneath the exuberant grandiosity of Micheli’s production lies a painfully realistic depiction of domestic marital life. The bed becomes a space of almost caustic realism, a place where betrayal, self-doubt and deception – all corollaries of Alcina’s false world – are given free rein. Ruggiero and Bradamante, together at last after Alcina’s sorcery, are in bed, quarrelling and making up. “I must beware of deceiving myself out of love”, Ruggiero sings, next to a sleeping Bradamante. It is an apt depiction of the night-time doubts that can terrorize the mind and a clever reminder of the opera’s motifs. Later, when Ruggiero, pretending still to love Alcina to ensure his safe departure, lies next to the sorceress, he assures her of his love. Deception becomes an act of self-preservation, an act within the act we are witnessing. As the production moves backstage to Alcina’s dressing room, we are reminded of the vulnerability of the Isola di Alcina; it is a fragile world, built on deceit.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays delightfully, excelling in the bombastic moments as well as the slender lines of accompaniment with just one or two instruments. The locus of this Alcina‘s triumph turns out to be the same as its shortcomings: the camp 1960s Milanese setting lends itself seductively to the themes of mistrust and deception, just as this very glamorization excludes the natural world, and all its attendant resonance, in which the opera was original set.

Nadia Beardis a writer and pianist based in Tbilisi

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