English National Opera @ Coliseum, London: 16, 19, 24, 26, April; 1, 3, 7, 9, 15, 17, 22 May 2003
Handel's tale of the triumph of reason over magic and wanton pleasure was fun when it first opened in 1999.
That was mostly because David McVicar's production was such a feast for the eyes.
The visual pleasures remain but this revival produces such aural delights that the whole performance seems like a different opera.
Not that there wasn't some good singing last time round - but the current cast is so superb, and the sound coaxed from the baroque orchestra by Richard Hickox so perfectly balanced, that the result is enchanting. The sorceress Alcina herself might have been casting spells.
Lisa Milne is in fabulous voice as Alcina, imperious when crossed and extraordinarily moving as her magic begins to fail her and she loses her lover, Ruggiero. The regretful aria "Yes, you know me", with quiet theorbo and baroque cello accompaniment, was exquisite. Her minx of a sister Morgana - who bursts on to the stage wearing a punk cerise crinoline - is Laura Claycomb, making a late ENO debut after singing in many of the major opera houses of the world. She too is wonderful, tackling the fiendishly difficult (and frighteningly high) arias with nonchalance, even while dancing with the wild spirits of the magic island. Both singers create irresistible characters so that for all their faults, one feels genuine regret when duty and reason destroy their charmed life.
Swede Charlotte Hellekant also makes a welcome ENO debut as Bradamante, the spurned lover whose search for the errant Ruggiero breaks Alcina's spell. She makes a handsome young redcoat in her disguise (this being Handel, cross-dressing abounds) and has a fascinating deep mezzo voice. American Deanne Meek (yet another ENO debut) is Ruggiero and the only slight disappointment of the evening. In a "normal" cast she would have been fine but in this company, though she sang perfectly respectably, she simply didn't shine. Gail Pearson in the tiny role of Oberto impresses with a wonderful clarity of voice.
There are only two male soloists in the whole cast: Mark Richardson is dignified as Bradamante's tutor, and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks delightful as Morgana's pink-haired lover Oronte.
The set (based on Palladio's Teatro Olimpico) still dazzles, and by restricting the vast area of the Coliseum stage ensures that arias are delivered well to the fore. This is a masterstroke because one could almost be in a small, intimate theatre - something the Coliseum most definitely isn't - in terms of the clarity of sound and diction. The costumes are fantastically inventive, especially for the spirits (performed by dancers: lots more cross-dressing) and so is the choreography, in a work that has many orchestral opportunities for dance. I particularly liked the punk tutu-wearer with a penchant for hanging upside-down in doorways...
In terms of style and sheer quality of musicianship, this could be ENO back in the golden age of the Jonas-Elder-Pountney triumvirate. Miss this production - and especially this cast - at your peril.