Jones’ new staging features an angry baboon and a forlorn Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – what’s not to like?
When the curtain came down on the first night of the Royal Opera’s fantastical new staging of Alcina, I was of the opinion that every opera production from now on should contain an angry, dancing baboon. Well, maybe not, but Richard Jones and his imaginative designer Anthony McDonald have delved into the deep recesses of their fertile minds, and unearthed a string of visually stunning stage images for this enthralling and witty take on Handel’s exquisite opera.
The plot is one of his most complex, containing multiple examples of characters impersonating other characters, mistaken identity, unrequited love, deceit and redemption. To cut a long story short, the sorceress Alcina has developed a penchant for luring young men to her island, and then turning them into animals with a sprinkling of potion from a magic urn. She’s aided and abetted by her sister Morgana, but when true love manifests itself, everything is turned on its head. In the end good triumphs over evil, and the natural order is resumed.
This is the kind of over the top opera at which Jones excels, and it’s a pleasure to report that after several stagings that missed the mark recently, he’s back on top form, reminding us that there are few opera directors that possess as anarchic a mind as his. Reimagining the opera as a parable set loosely around the time of the Pilgrim Fathers is a stroke of genius, as they set sail on their quest to bring the ‘word’ to far flung, exotic lands. Landing on Alcina’s enchanted island takes them on a very different kind of journey – just one squirt from the sorceress’ oversized bottle of eau de Alcina transforms them into a beast – their ensuing antics a source of merriment, often tinged with melancholy.
McDonald’s evocative sets, brilliantly lit by Lucy Carter, are a horticulturalist’s wet dream. Verdant pastures are wheeled around the stage, a glitter ball appears, ruched curtains rise and fall, and a garden shed rolls into view. Combined with Sarah Fahie’s imaginative choreography, the entire staging comes alive, filled with energy, magic and wit. Jones doesn’t play his trump card until the final curtain, once order is restored and the Pilgrims return, and I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say he plays a blinder.
“…every opera production from now on should contain an angry, dancing baboon”
As the sorceress herself, Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa made a welcome return to the House, having wowed audiences last season as a sensational Violetta in La Traviata. Here, she moulded Handel’s vocal lines with care, and invested each of her arias with a rare sense of emotion – ‘Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai’ was infused with Mediterranean warmth, while ‘Ombre pallide’ tugged at the heartstrings. As expected, her coloratura was technically faultless throughout and she embodied Jones’ vision of the character, bold and sassy at the start, yet tinged with sadness by the close, to perfection.
As her lover, Ruggiero, Emily d’Angelo, not only looked perfect for this trouser role, but her robust, vividly coloured mezzo-soprano fleshed out Handel’s challenging vocal demands with aplomb. Even throughout the range, with a thrilling top, and commanding chest voice, she capped her magnificent performance with a spellbinding ‘Sta nell’ Ircana’. Mary Bevan was a delightful Morgana, fearless in the high lying passages, and a winning stage presence. Her bravura, all-singing, all-dancing ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ which closed the first act, rightly brought the house down.
Rupert Charlesworth used his well-schooled tenor to telling effect throughout, dispatching Oronte’s vocal cascades with nonchalant ease. Varduhi Abrahamyan was a vocally supple and resplendent Bradamante, while José Coca Loza plumbed the depths as Atlante. Casting a boy soprano as his son, Oberto, may have seemed like a risky move given the complexity of his music, but 12 year old Malakai M Bayoh delivered all his arias stylishly and with a bright, crystal clear tone. Allied to an endearing stage presence, on the basis of this performance this highly talented young lad is destined for an exciting musical future.
Conductor Christian Curnyn led a buoyant period informed performance, drawing stylish playing from the scaled-down ROH orchestra. Whilst one missed the authenticity and tinta a period band would have brought to the proceedings, there was still much to enjoy in a performance that took flight from the start. The continuo playing was exceptional. Following on from Agrippina and Theodora, this latest Handel staging is yet another feather in The Royal Opera’s cap. It’s to be hoped the planned production of Ariodante that fell victim to the pandemic can be salvaged for a future season, as the company is certainly doing Handel proud.
• Details of future performances can be found here.