The best parts of Alcina, to my mind, are the parts where the characters are disillusioned, deceived, lying or regretting/worrying about things that are not or might not be real. One can argue quite reasonably that this is an opera about love; I think the claim can also be made that this is an opera about lies.
And the music does not come down one hundred percent on the side of truth. The idea that music was a kind of sweet deception, sometimes a dangerously sweet deception, was a truism in Handel’s day. I mean, it’s there – but it isn’t, right? It makes you feel things, but sometimes it’s not at all clear why. Words like chant, chanson and enchantment are all related to one another; the idea clearly goes back even further than the eighteenth century. (The analytical move made in the previous sentence operates more smoothly in Romance languages — and the bits of English, like chant and enchant, that derive from French — than it does in say, German, but since this opera is in Italian I suspect I am going to get away with it.)
Some of the most haunting music in Alcina is about lies and illusions. ‘Verdi prati,’ for example. There is also Ruggiero’s aria ‘mio bel tesoro’ from Act II, which is one of the parts of this opera that I always forget how much I like. I think it’s the two recorders. Ever notice how recorders tend to turn up in baroque operas at fairly well-defined times? It’s death, or it’s love/death/sex, or it’s ‘someone’s getting fucked with’. Here it’s the last. The recorders double and echo Ruggiero’s melodic line – just as Ruggiero is being double with Alcina.
And it may be that Handel is messing with us a little bit. My attention never flagged during this production of Alcina. The tension is never high, but it’s always there. The music is what is holding all this together, and the fact that music is holding together this rather creaky story about a gal with a fragile urn and some serious control issues vis-a-vis personal relationships — this is Handel showing us how clever he actually is.