English National Opera @ Coliseum, London: November 1999
The trouble with Handel is that his original audiences didn't have so many distractions. They were quite happy to sit for hours while his singers came on, sang a nice aria, sang it again with twiddly bits, and then went off again. Three hours of that? No problem - they weren't missing anything on telly and they probably didn't have to get up for work the next day.
We're a bit more demanding now, which means modern opera producers have to work an awful lot harder to entertain us during those very beautiful but painfully slow scenes where, frankly, not a lot happens. The other problem with Handel operas is that some of the plots are really very tortuous and involve an awful lot of cross-dressing - you know the sort of thing, girl singing a man's role who then dresses up as a woman. Confused? Well, I was.
Director David McVicar's new production of Alcina at ENO takes all these problems in its stride and goes all out for entertainment value. That's not to say that the music isn't gorgeous - it is, though there's only one famous aria and I found myself humming something from a different opera afterwards - but the evening is made by the visual feast on stage.
Alcina is a sorceress who shipwrecks sailors on her island so that she can take her pick of fresh lovers every so often. This girl has style, and a wardrobe to die for. Her spirits slither around the stage in fabulous 18th century punk costumes, using the ornate gold set (Palladio's Teatro Olimpico meets the Medici chapels) as a vast climbing frame. Alcina's sister Morgana is the original girl who wants to have fun, in a shocking pink distressed crinoline, through which her ample charms are all too obvious. Visual jokes abound, and I particularly liked the spectacular leopardskin frock-coat...
The overall effect is indeed of an enchanted isle, and you can quite understand why Alcina's latest conquest, Ruggiero (sung by a woman), has forgotten duty and fiancée in all the excitement. When said fiancée turns up (dressed as a man, of course) to drag him home it's obvious that the party is nearly over. In fact we've got over 3 hours to go before reason triumphs over fun, and Alcina's magic lies in ruins around her.
During that time we are royally entertained with exquisite singing from Alcina (Joan Rodgers), Morgana (Lisa Milne fulfilling her promise from earlier Handel roles such as Rodelinda) and Ruggiero (a suitably tall Sarah Connolly), among others in a fine cast. It seems a shame however that ENO couldn't have wheeled out at least one counter-tenor for the evening, just to give a little more variety.
My advice to those with a short attention span is to go for the first act, which lasts just over an hour. You'll get all the wonderful visual trickery, some gorgeous singing, and still have time to go to the pub.