The ‘play-within-a-play’ conceit that this production uses is actually doing more work than it appears to. The first time I saw the introductory scene that occurs during the overture, my impression was that there was almost too much story going on. The program notes inform us that this is the Duchess of Devonshire (Georgiana Cavendish) and her circle, who are dressing up as the characters in Alcina for the ‘performance’ of the opera. (There are going to be a lot of quotation marks in this post).
So, as I say, it seems like there is a little too much story here. You wouldn’t know who these people are without reading the program notes, and even if you do, it’s not immediately apparent why it matters. It seems more of an information game than a stage concept.
But there is a way in which this works. One of the criticisms one can make of this production is that there doesn’t seem to be much at stake. None of this is ‘real’. But there are some clues that something is up. First of all, there is “Ah! mio cor.” The emotion edges into the real here, particularly by the ‘B’ section of the aria. By the time we get to “son regina” Alcina appears to be pretty serious. This is a purely idiosyncratic impression, but it seems almost as if “Cavendish” is using the character of Alcina to clarify her own thoughts. And that lovely ethereal sound that Harteros makes in both the A section and the repeat of it is perfect: it gives a feeling of both intensity and detachment.
We get a little more of the same in ‘mi restano le lagrime.’ Here the direction has Alcina beginning the aria with a few steps of a formal dance. Her look is directed to the audience, which I think is intended to communicate that something is being ‘performed’ here in a sense other than simply that this is a performance of an opera. We are being danced with a little bit by Alcina/Cavendish. And the sound here is similar to ‘ah, mio cor’ — there is something very atmospheric about the way Harteros sings this.
But what we have actually seen on stage up to this point doesn’t quite indicate what all this is about. Something is clearly going on behind the scenes of the ‘play within a play.’ The bottle of booze and the pills that Alcina breaks out are certainly evidence of this, as is Alcina’s collapse at the beginning of ‘ah! mio cor’ which the ‘audience’ on stage does not seem to quite expect.
And it’s here where the extra story material does some work. According to the liner notes in my DVD, the ‘character’ playing Ruggiero is intended to be Lady Elizabeth Foster. Who is Lady Foster? Lady Foster was a close friend of the Duchess of Devonshire and — get this — her (Georgiana’s) husband’s lover. They had a menage-a-trois going on for over two decades, with the knowledge and consent of all parties. Here is a painting of Foster and Cavendish:
So, this certainly adds some subtext to the Ruggiero/Alcina dynamic, no? The fact that Ruggiero is ‘really’ a woman makes a slightly different kind of sense than it normally does, and the fact that this woman (Foster) eventually marries Alcina’s ‘husband’ — whoops, I meant ‘Alcina’s’ husband — gives an edge to the opera’s theme of love and betrayal. Perhaps Cavendish was not entirely sanguine about that menage after all. Alternately, Alcina and Ruggiero’s story suggests that the question of who was menaging whom may be more complex than the history books indicate.
However, there is an obvious problem here. It is fun to fool around with this kind of historical detail, but none of it is ‘in’ the production in any meaningful way. If you don’t care one way or the other about Georgiana Cavendish (my own position is that we should all care about Georgiana Cavendish, but I respect the fact that other people may not care as much about Georgiana Cavendish as I do) it’s not clear why you would be interested in this reading of the opera.