By kind permission of the
English Touring Opera
|An Opera in three acts, composed in 1734||
By kind permission of the
English Touring Opera
|Music by George Frideric Handel|
|Libretto anonymous, after Ariosto|
The enchantress Alcina lives on her island with her current lover Ruggiero (a former warrior), her sister Morgana, and Morgana's current lover Oronte, who is also Alcina's general.
In an effort to retrieve the decadent Ruggiero, his abandoned wife, Bradamante, and his former tutor, Melisso, come to the island. Bradamante is disguised as a man - her brother, Ricciardo. Morgana greets them, and accepts their story that a storm drove them to the island; she loses no time in falling in love with 'Ricciardo', the smooth warrior.
Ruggiero does not recognise his wife or former tutor, and is hostile to their attempts to take home away. Oronte, jealous now of Morgana's new passion for 'Ricciardo', tries to make trouble: he tells Ruggiero that Alcina herself will turn to 'Ricciardo', and that Ruggiero will be turned into a beast, a plan, a stone, or a wave, like all of Alcina's discarded lovers. In front of 'Ricciardo', Alcina affirms her love for Ruggiero.
Left alone with him, Bradamante reveals herself to her husband, but he does not believe her. Despairing, Bradamante agrees to become the new lover of Morgana, in order to get closer to Ruggiero.
Melisso, choosing another tactic, forces Ruggiero to recognise himself, and to see with clear eyes the wasteland that is Alcina's enchanted island. Ruggiero is humbled, and pledges to devote himself to Bradamante. When Bradamante appears to him, however, he is thrown into confusion, and decides that she must be just another spall of Alcina's. Bradamante is not best pleased.
To show her love for Ruggiero, Alcina decides that she will transform 'Ricciardo' into a serpent. Morgana interceeds for her new beloved. Ruggiero agrees that 'Ricciardo' should be spared. Following Melisso's advice, he asks to put on his armour and go hunting again, tired of his listless service to Alcina. Reluctantly, she agrees. As soon as he leaves, Oronte reveals that Ruggiero plans to flee the island with the unwelcome guests. Alcina is heartbroken.
Morgana has rebuffed Oronte, but when she overhears the tender reconciliation of 'Ricciardo'/Bradamante and Ruggiero, she changes her mind.
Alcina summons her enchanted spirits to wreak revenge on Ruggiero, but they do not hear her: she has broken her own power by truly falling in love with a mortal.
With nostalgia, Ruggiero looks back on Alcina's island, but he will not be won back to her: there are monsters he has to defeat, not least in his own mind. The vigorous Bradamante vows not to leave the island until all of Alcina's former lovers regain human shape. She, Melisso and Ruggiero approach Alcina's magic sanctuary; eventually it is Ruggiero who destroys her lamp. Warriors, once transformed by Alcina into a leafy branch, a wave, and assorted animals, are restored to their former shape.
Alcina's power is broken: she will drown. Oronte joins the righteous trio in their triumph.
In 1734 Handel and his manager Heidegger lost the lease on the King's Theatre in London, ending a rich period in British opera and the existence of what was known as the Royal Academy of Music. When John Rich offered Handel the use of his new theatre at Covent Garden, the stakes were high.
Handel answered his rivals with a magnificent season in 1735, including two revivals, a pastiche opera with hit arias, and two new opera's Ariodante and Alcina, as well as three oratorios. This achievement compares to the peaks he had reached a decade earlier at the King's Theatre, with Giulio Cesare, Rondelinda and Tamerlano; Arguably these two seasons were the most remarkable ever created in Britain. Alcina was a particular success, sustaining 18 performances.
Though inspired by a story from Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso, Handel's libretto is a very free adaption. The sorceress Alcina, who shares centre stage with her mortal lover Ruggiero, is a deeply drawn character, taking the simple story in new directions. Her splendid arias, a reward to the faithful Anna Strada del Op, surprise and enthral the listener just as she enslaves her lovers. Beside her, the ardent lover and errant husband Ruggiero, written for Carestini, a leading castrato, can at first seem passive; indeed, the singer famously sent back to Handel one deceptively simple aria, 'Verdi prati', but Handel ordered him ti sing it as written. His role is full of elegant, subtle touches, crowned by the brilliance of his Act III aria with horns, 'Sta nell'Ircana.' The other characters are not stinted wonderful music: even the bass Gustavus Waltz, who seemed to have doubled as Handel's cook, gets a spacious, stirring aria. Alcina's sister Morgana (first played by Cecilia Young) has a terrific expression of joy at the end of Act I, as well as a pair of heartfelt arias with violin and cello obbligato; her rejected suitor Oronte, originally sung by the young British tenor John Beard, has three light arias of great charm, utterly distinct in style. The fascinating part of the rejected wife Bradamante has distinctive music, too, low lying and solid but with brilliant coloratura display. Another role exists, which is often cut for reasons of length, is the charming boy soprano role of Oberto (a youth who is looking for his father), which Handel had added to his opera only after its completion for the young William Savage.
I first saw this opera on the Autumn 2005 tour of the English Touring Opera, and I immediately fell in love with it. I have long been a fan of Handel, but this was another level of wonder for me. Not only was the cast brilliant (especially Alcina, played by Amanda Echalaz and Ruggiero, played by Louise Poole) but the staging was perfection. In fact, I enjoyed the performance so much I went to see it twice! I would have to admit that this opera is definitely one of my favourites, and will always hold a special place in my heart as I first saw it just after I had passed my PhD viva!