This production of Handel’s Alcina, directed by Katie Mitchell and conducted by Andrea Marcon, turns upon the complex and many-sided relationship between sand, flasks of bright blue liquid, and a luggage scanner that spits out taxidermy specimens. There is also BDSM.
As far as I can determine, the concept is basically this. Alcina’s magic consists of drawing life from people for her own and her sister Morgana’s consumption. This is done by drugging Alcina’s victims and running them through the luggage scanner, from whence they emerge in the form of stuffed animals (taxidermy, not plushies). This process is connected to the bright blue liquid that Alcina and Morgana keep in Erlenmeyer flasks, one of which is attached – in a display case – to the magic urn. Alcina injects Bradamante with some of it before she has the latter run through the luggage scanner, but soon after this Morgana swallows a few drops of it. If it was Magic Island Life Force Extract, it’s not clear why they’re shooting Bradamante up with it, but if it’s just a prettier kind of chloroform, it’s not clear why Morgana is drinking it. What it appears to be is Magic Island Formaldehyde – Bradamante is being prepped for her transition to being a stuffed bird, and Morgana, who is not “really” as young as she appears, perhaps needs a pick me up.
Alcina’s magic, in other words, is limited to varieties of unnatural preservation. Both Alcina (Patricia Petibon) and Morgana (Anna Prohaska) are doubled by old women. In the warmly lit room that forms the center of the stage, the magic is in operation and they appear young. But when they pass through the doors to the dank-looking anterooms on either side and above, the spell drops away and they appear aged. (The walls dividing these rooms on the stage are thick, allowing the older doubles to swap in for the singers as they pass through.) The old women are the “real” Alcina and Morgana, as Ruggiero shows when he breaks the urn at the end by disconnecting it from its Magic Formaldehyde hookup and dumping its contents – sand, as in an hourglass – on the floor; Alcina and Morgana then revert to their aged selves and step into two of the specimen cases that had held the taxidermy animals their machine had created.
So, Alcina is trying to stay alive and young at the expense of others. The concept is disappointing, in a way. Usually this opera reads as more about power – Alcina likes creating illusions and manipulating her lovers and changing humans into animals because she’s a sorceress, and what with being a sorceress she loves having power over others; it’s that contrast between power and the vulnerability of love that gives the story some of its punch. But if her power is merely about appearing young and desirable, and avoiding her “real” existence as a dried-out taxidermy specimen in a box, that seems to take the edge off it a little, since Alcina is to be pitied not because she trusted her own illusions too much and lost as a result, as sorcerers and sorceresses will do, but because she’s old and clinging to life that’s not really hers. Ironically, making Alcina’s weakness more human (wanting to stave off the effects of time) makes her less interesting. The mixture of human being and sorceress and the question of which one is going to win out and how is part of the draw, after all.
Perhaps this is why Patricia Petibon’s performance, despite many good qualities, doesn’t go anywhere. Her singing has all the drama and fireworks you would expect – and plenty of elongated pauses – but I couldn’t ever work up all that much enthusiasm for the character, because what she’s about to lose (false youth and life) is something she never “should” have had in the first place. The production gives a double meaning to some of the big numbers, like Alcina’s “si, son quella, non più bella” (originally, Alcina is “non più bella” in Ruggiero’s perception, here she is both to him and in reality) or Ruggiero’s “verdi prati” about the vanished beauty of the magic island’s green fields – but I’m not sure that this deepens them in any meaningful way. After all, it’s arguably more interesting if Alcina is aware that she has lost Ruggiero’s perception of her beauty, rather than the real thing, or if Ruggiero is mourning something that he knows never really existed at all, right?
On the subject of Ruggiero. I don’t know if I can reconcile myself to a countertenor Ruggiero, even a countertenor as good as Philippe Jaroussky. Actually I am pretty sure I can’t. I tried. But I kept having visions of Alice Coote and Vesselina Kasarova and I gave up. Jaroussky brings the vocal magic in general, and here I kept waiting for it to happen. But it didn’t.
The other draw for me here was Anna Prohaska as Morgana. Prohaska is hampered by the limits of the concept in the same way Petibon is. Girl can sing – no question about that. I would not at all mind hearing her tackle the title role of this opera in a few years. But Morgana is into BDSM (one of the first things that “Ricciardo” i.e. Bradamante in disguise is asked to do is tickle the tied-up Morgana with a feather duster; Bradamante (Katarina Bradić) looks about as excited as I felt at this prospect) and the SM part of it was at times a literal distraction from the music: in Act III, I was listening to “credete al mio dolore” but would you believe, the intermittent thwack of a soprano being flogged with a riding crop is actually kind of a nuisance in an opera.
Katarina Bradić’s website lists her as a mezzo-soprano/contralto, which has the advantage of comprehensiveness, I guess; I would have figured her for the latter, based on the really pleasantly deep and solid singing I heard. She and Melisso (Krzyzstof Baczyk) drop in in special ops gear – and well, I guess it works.
And Oberto here is sung by a boy soprano! Two boy sopranos, on alternating nights. When I first saw the kid I did a double take – is that really a kid? or just a very boyish soprano? No, it is a kid, but a kid who can sing. The tempo seemed to slow down a bit in his first aria to allow him to navigate the more tricky parts, and you can see him working hard to project – but the sound is striking, and having contrasting timbres among singers is never a bad thing. Oh, and Oberto has a teddy bear that he totes around with him. The bear is a total red herring; at the end of the opera, I was ready for Oronte to put the stuffed bear backwards through the machine – NB: if you have a machine that turns live people into preserved animals, the way to undo the transformation is to run the apparatus with the conveyor belt going in the opposite direction – and have it be the boy’s father, but nope. Oberto’s father was the stuffed wildcat. Oh, and they skipped Oberto’s “barbara!” aria near the end, perhaps because it would be tricky for even Alcina to come up with a convincing reason to ask Oberto to kill an already very dead cougar.