|Company||Maggio Musicale Fiorentino|
|Venue||Teatro del Maggio|
|Date||26 October 2022|
Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence has restaged Cecilia Bartoli's 2019 Salzburg hit, the Damiano Michieletto production of Handel's Alcina. The opera was composed for Handel's first season at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, London in 1735, but like so many works of the period, it was forgotten until revivals in the 20th century. Yet it's crammed full of good tunes, and with such an engaging production as this one, the four-hour running time flies by.
It is certainly Bartoli's show, and she is truly bewitching vocally and committed as an interpreter, but there is much else going on around her that is also of notable calibre, most of all the astonishing playing of the Les Musiciens du Prince under Gianluigi Capuano: the group breathed and longed and was as irate as the characters on stage. Also, in the role of Ruggiero, the man who conquerors Alcina's heart, was the exceptional countertenor Carlo Vistoli whose meaty, macho vocal attack made one see instantly why Alcina fell for him.
The libretto for Alcina comes from Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem Orlando furioso (a source of inspiration for countless operas, paintings, books, plays, and films) via Riccardo Broschi (the brother of Carlo Broschi, aka Farinelli) who seven years earlier had written the opera L'Isola Di Alcina (Alcina's Island). Instead of the world of sorceresses, lions, enchanted castles, and knights that Handel envisaged, Michieletto has placed the action in the foyer of a hotel (apparently). Not having read the programme notes until after the performance, this wasn't clear, but it didn't matter: it is a black space with slyly moving lights and a large semi-transparent glass wall on a revolve that divided the performance space in two – the accomplished work of set designer Paolo Fantin.
A large group of actors play the former lovers of Alcina, a woman who her uses her magical powers to hold back time and, usually from the other side of the glass wall, we see them, half-naked, as though they've just been thrown from Alcina's bed. However, among them Alcina sees, with horror and fascination, an extraordinarily old woman; a ghostlike figure who haunts her. This is the true image of Alcina, the image her magical powers are holding at bay. At one point the glass wall, which doubles as a projection screen, shows Bartoli's mother (the soprano and vocal coach Silvana Bazzoni) in a warts-and-all video applying makeup to her crinkly face – this is the reality Alcina is escaping from, and in the final scene, her powers gone, Alcina's hair falls out in clumps as that reality catches up with her. A giant mirror is often Alcina's entrance and exit, and when it is smashed during the closing moments (and real glass is broken with a real axe) the now empty stage is filled with shards of glass that descend from the flies. The production is highly animated but never a distraction, and the use of modern costume (for Alcina and those she interacts with) together with Elizabethan-style garb for the others (with Bradamante, Ruggiero's lover, and eventually Ruggiero himself, changing costume to return to the true versions of themselves as Alcina loses her power over them) helps marvellously to communicate the story.
Bartoli's six arias are beautifully characterised and nuanced, with her coloratura touching the outer limits of the female voice with her warm mezzo rising to soprano heights without effort. But maybe the most impressive and affecting moment of all Alcina comes after a forte recitative with Bartoli holding a dagger and swearing vengeance – she lets the weapon fall to the ground and sings “Ah! Mio cor!” with the quietest of pianissimi and with spine-tingling intensity that is one of the pinnacles of her art. Apart from the roars of applause and stamping of feet after many of the arias, I have rarely heard such sustained, cough-less concentration from an audience, and for such a long period of time. Bartoli's performance and Michieletto's production were thoroughly engrossing.
To the others in the cast. Morganna, who here is maybe a waitress – though the sister of Alcina and fellow sorceress in the original – has the aria that Joan Sutherland liked to steal (and for good reason as it is probably Alcina's best-known aria) “Tornami a vagheggiar”, which Lucía Martín-Cartón sang with her precise soprano that introduced vibrato on high held notes right at the last moment. A boy soprano (there was a small list of names to choose from on the programme) from the Wilten Boys' Choir in Innsbruck sang Oberto (instead of the usual soprano, or the role being cut entirely), and was excellent both musically and as an actor, though of course his voice lacked the punch of his adult companions on stage. Petr Nekoranec's tenor was very pleasing and (as all the men go bare-chested at least once) he had the best pectorals of the lot. Melisso was superbly sung with authority by Riccardo Novaro, who has a richly coloured, unforced (bass?) baritone. A weak point was Kristina Hammarström's Bradamante whose coloratura in the middle of her voice had a blank tone, and that was where many of her arias should have shone. However, for her final aria “All'alma fedel” (which does not require the virtuosic furore coloratura of her first act aria “È gelosia” for example) was quite charming.
Alcina, a photo album
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.