Played in its entirety, Handel’s Alcina is three and a half hours long. Thankfully, Opera North have heavily edited the opera to under three hours in length. However, this doesn’t make its complex plot any easier to follow.
Like The Tempest, Handel’s opera is set on an enchanted island. The island belongs to a sorceress, Alcina, and she lives there happily with her fiancé, Ruggiero. Similar to Shakespeare’s comedies, Alcina‘s plot essentially shows the predicaments of several sets of lovers as they get their wires crossed, falling in and out love with each other. There are disguises, enchantments, and cross-dressing, where it all gets a bit confusing, before drawing to a satisfying conclusion.
The confusion of the plot is amplified by the fact that Handel’s operas contain lines of verse that are elongated and the repetition of them can go on for several minutes, with vocal variations. However, the captions don’t stay on screen for that length of time, so it can become confusing to discern what the characters are singing about.
There were moments where I actually forgot what the original line was by the time the singers had finished singing. Perhaps leaving the captions on the screen over the sustained time can help the audience know that they are repeating the line. This would be particularly helpful for people with hearing impairments.
In an opera about magic and enchantments, I am incredibly disappointed that this production had a distinct lack of magic or visual spectacle of any kind. Rather than getting magical manifestations of grand palaces and mystical sorcery, there’s a visually unimpressive black and white video animation of a forest path instead. The rigging of the stage lights is lowered to the floor and lifted again, and the pre-show warning of a flame effect sadly turns out to be a small fire which a character lights in the woods.
Given the incredibly high bar that Opera North have set with their visually impressive, grand productions, seeing the stage dressed plainly with a dozen or so green chairs, upcycled by designer Hannah Clark, is hugely disappointing. Theatre tickets aren’t cheap, and with tickets to Alcina costing up to £67.50, it’s easy to feel short changed.
According to the programme, the reason for this lack of theatricality and spectacle lies with Alcina being Opera North’s first ever fully-sustainable production, which substitutes grand effects and magic and focuses on the human drama of Handel’s opera instead.
The human drama is rendered with complete conviction by the whole cast, who all deliver fantastic performances, fully embracing and utilising the opportunity to be the focus of the audience’s attention. Each of their characters are perfectly developed, giving the audience chance to empathise with their predicaments.
Due to sickness, Sky Ingram stepped in at short notice to play the protagonist Alcina and delivered an excellent performance. If I hadn’t been told beforehand, I wouldn’t have noticed that Ingram was filling in for Máire Flavin. Her duets with Patrick Terry‘s Ruggiero, her lover, were filled with passion, love and desire, perfectly harmonising with Terry’s astonishing countertenor vocals.
However, it is Fflur Wyn who stole my heart with her compassionate attempt to reconcile with her lover, played by Nick Pritchard. The couple deliver the absolute highlight of the opera, as their astounding duet together beautifully renders their characters’ inner turmoil and longing for each other.
Wyn exquisitely captures Morgana’s remorse and suffering, desperately begging for exoneration, with Pritchard portraying Oronte’s immense sorrow and perceptible apprehension of forgiveness. This scene is such a heart-achingly stunning piece of opera, it had me genuinely rooting for the couple’s reconciliation.
Although Alcina has a disappointing lack of magical spectacle, it delivers a moment of profound beauty that almost makes up for it.