Basically, I think the problem is that the production is taking too much on itself. It’s trying to do too much.
First of all, there is the set. It is one dilapidated room with a huge frame/mirror in the center. Sometimes characters are on our side of the mirror, sometimes not. On the other side there is a conveyor belt (that we can’t see) that moves characters one way or the other. Sometimes the rear of the set scrolls, Nintendo-style, to reveal additional wall-space, and at one point part of a stairway.
There are also a lot of miscellaneous objects. My favorite object is the French horn. Not the horn in the orchestra: the one on the stage. It first appears at the beginning of Act II, when Melisso gives Ruggiero the magic ring that allows him to see Alcina’s island as it really is. There is a lot of junk lying about in Alcina’s grande salle, and among the clutter is a French horn. The first time Ruggiero picked it up (after Melisso has already plucked it from among the odds and ends in the corner stage right) I half suspected that this was going to be far cleverer than I expected and he and Melisso and Bradamante were somehow going to MacGyver their way off of that island using nothing but a rubber band, a broken sword and a french horn valve.
This did not happen. What happened with the French horn was that Ruggiero leaves it alone during “mi lusinga” (1:03:40 – I was focused enough on Coote’s singing the first time that I didn’t notice the little Alcina/Bradamante tableau on the conveyor belt in the background. How about that!) and then during the recitative preceding “mio bel tesoro” he picks it up again. He hangs onto it for the first part of the aria, and then as Bradamante and Morgana get increasingly friendly stage left (or, rather, Morgana does) Ruggierio walks over and stands between them with the horn. Then he gives it to Bradamante. Alcina is busy feeling up the picture frame, so she doesn’t notice, and Morgana is clearly in a very good place vis a vis Bradamante/Ricciardo by the A section repeat — and if I describe any more of this, we will all begin to howl in despair. To summarize: that French horn is up to something.
There are also some objects that you would expect to see but you don’t, namely Alcina’s urn. In a production that is so upfront of about Alcina’s ‘magic’ being sex I am actually kind of surprised that she doesn’t have an urn. I mean – you know. Urns, right? At the end, when the urn is customarily smashed what we get is Ruggiero shooting Alcina. Alcina crumples to the floor. Everyone is very relieved, and it looks as though things will be fine.
But things are not fine. Things get a little strange during that final chorus. For example, Bradamante ends up on Melisso’s lap. Everyone begins to take their clothes off and just when you think it’s almost over, Alcina comes back. She strolls onto the stage, but no one sees her. She examines the scene before her and comes to a stop with a look that is somewhere between pissed off and contemptuous. The effect is actually quite chilling. You thought Alcina was a person. Alcina is not a person. Alcina is something else, possibly something intrinsic to the place itself, and the implication is that for our heroes, the nightmare is just beginning.
Note that I have just spent a great deal of space explaining what goes on in this visually. There is plenty more that I won’t discuss. This is the problem.
What was effective about that Vienna production of Alcina was that it worked the central metaphor of the opera for all it was worth. I mean this in a good way. Alcina is held together by the music, just as Alcina’s island is held together by Alcina’s magic. Music has some of the qualities that magic does in fairy stories – it is both real and not, present but also intangible: each can take hold of you invisibly and do strange things to you and it’s hard to say why or how. It’s no accident that in “verdi prati” Ruggierio expresses sadness about the loss of the illusion. When music ceases, it’s gone.
The Stuttgart production spends a lot of time poking at the relationships between the central characters via staging and visual games. The ‘ballet’ following ‘ombre pallide’ is the best example of this (1:52:00). Then there is Ruggierio’s French horn. That there is a horn in a section of the opera that deals with betrayal is sort of an obvious little joke. Musical horns = literal horns = cuckoldry = betrayal. (There is a little horn flourish in Figaro’s Act IV aria where he believes Susanna has betrayed him – same deal.) But the music sets this up so well that Ruggierio and Bradamante’s French horn relay is kind of gratuitous.
And that is pretty much true of the whole thing. This is a production that will not leave the opera alone. The problem is not the sex, or the partial nudity, or even the fact that this is an unconventional reading of the opera. There is nothing wrong with any of those things in and of themselves. The problem is that the thing is so ‘productiony’ that it’s a distraction. It is as if the director did not trust the music to make the thing work.