I have dealt with this opera before. And most of the people in this performance have too. There is an audio recording of it from 2004 which has most of the same principals: Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Orlando (“the knight who lapses into French when he goes really mad”), Jennifer Larmore (Alcina), Veronica Cangemi (Angelica) and Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero). But here you can see them as well as hear them, and it’s totally worth it.
The director of this version is Pierre Audi, and it was staged at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées in Paris. The production is atmospheric without being obtrusive. Alcina’s palace or island or Chippendales Training Institute or whatever it is is a dark interior space, lit to look bluish gray, with dark panels on which are painted elements of an eighteenth-century interior. Sometimes the light brightens to apricot or gold, and we get glimpses, as the rear panels move back, of a broader space beyond. There is some furniture – rows of chairs, a table, decanters of the magic water Alcina uses to work her enchantments (here I missed the San Francisco Opera production where Alcina poured Ruggiero a long cool cup of . . . glitter) and a chandelier. The costumes are eighteenth-century, but all in shades of gray and black, and in the beginning the characters walk around with – sometimes wearing, sometimes holding – identical black masks. In the final act, where Orlando finally flips his accumulated shit and begins raving in French, the whole team appears to decamp for the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production of Rodelinda – it’s a dark space surrounded by brick walls with a shiny black floor.
This is one of those productions where you really notice whenever you see any lights or when things change color. The gray-blue light brightens to gold soon after Ruggiero first arrives; Alcina’s servants come in at one point bearing candelabras; there is a massive chandelier that appears to suffer a power surge at the moment Orlando realizes Angelica has deceived him and he begins his descent into madness – there’s a bright greenish light and a crack and then darkness. All the emphasis on light and shadow and the masks makes a visual connection between the various deceptions and tricks and double-dealing on the one hand and Orlando’s madness on the other – if madness is the inability to distinguish the unreal from the real, it’s not surprising that he goes nuts: lies and equivocations and illusions that prevent people from seeing what is real are the core of the story. There’s plenty of half-light to go around.
The one thing I’m still working on, interpretively, is the enormous chair. By the beginning of Act II there is a very large overturned chair in the middle of the room. Large as in Alcina can stand on the floor and rest her elbows on the edge of the seat. Alcina and Astolfo stalk one another around it during Alcina’s “Vorresti amor da me?” (This DVD, by the way, doesn’t have a list of tracks, and there are no Italian subtitles: your options are “English,” “French” and “No.”). Earlier, at the very beginning of Act I, we see Alcina and her followers/victims seated in similar chairs, which are then set out in rows – and soon after this Orlando and Astolfo get into a brawl and knock several of the chairs down as Alcina watches, looking pleased with herself. The overturned chairs are a signal of both disorder and Alcina’s power: or rather, that they are the same thing. Alcina causes trouble. And having a GREAT BIG overturned chair in the middle of things – well, I guess it’s hard to miss, isn’t it.
Oh, and I noticed for the first time that the libretto of this opera explains that Alcina is immortal. I guess that accounts for that bit at the end of that weird wallpapery Stuttgart Opera production of Handel’s Alcina from the late 90s — to the extent that anything can account for most of what goes on in that production – where Ruggiero shoots Alcina (Catherine Naglestad) and then she comes walking back in afterwards and it’s a little terrifying? I found it creepier and more effective without the explanation. But anyway.
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