George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alcina, opera seria in prologue and three acts (1738) [182:00]
Alcina – Patricia Petibon (soprano)
Ruggiero – Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor)
Morgana – Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Bradamante – Katarina Bradić (mezzo-soprano)
Oronte – Anthony Gregory (tenor)
Melisso – Krzysztof Baczyk (bass)
Oberto – Elias Mädler (member of the Tölzer Knabenchor)
Actors: Juliet Alderdice (elderly Alcina), Jane Thorne (elderly Morgana), Ian Hallard (Oberto's father, servant), Zoé Aldrich, Josephine Arden, Sarah Northgraves and Anna Martine (servants)
Chœur MusicAeterna (Chœur de l'Opéra de Perm)
Freiburger Barockorchester/Andrea Marcon (harpsichord)
Musical direction – Andrea Marcon
Stage direction – Katie Mitchell
Stage design – Chloe Lamford
Costume design – Laura Hopkins
Lighting – James Farncombe
Choreography – Joseph W. Alford
Choral direction – Vitaly Polonsly
Film Direction – Corentin Leconte
Produced – François Duplat
Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Grand Théâtre de Provence, France, July 2015
Filmed in High Definition – Mastered from a HD source
Picture format: 1080i – 16:9
Sound formats:
a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch – 48kHz/24 bit
b) Dolby Digital 5.1ch – 48kHz
Sung in Italian
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, French, German, Italian
Booklet notes: English, German, French
ERATO Blu-ray 9029 597435 [182:00]

Director Katie Mitchell’s vision of Handel's opera seria Alcina is a fast moving, captivating blend of eroticism and sorcery on an enchanted island ruled by the title character. As demonstrated here with stunning singing and imaginative staging added to its colourful scenario 'Alcina' becomes a marvellous prospect in the opera house and I loved every minute of it.

The opera has not always been popular. Premièred in 1735 in London and revived 3 years later Alcina then suffered from a change in fashion and was ignored for almost 200 years. Thankfully taste has changed again and Alcina is now becoming increasingly popular on the stage and has been recorded and filmed several times. For Alcina Handel recycled the anonymous libretto after the L'Alicina delusa of Antonio Marchi to a scenario taken from Ludovico Ariosto's 16th century epic poem Orlando Furioso which revolves around the knight Ruggiero who ventures to Alcina's enchanted island. The beautiful yet devious sorceress Alcina lures the heroes to her island palace and after becoming bored transforms them into birds, animals and trees also inanimate objects such as rocks.

Director Katie Mitchell and stage designer Chloe Lamford have collaborated on an enthralling contemporary production which stretches the imagination and taste. It's based around a palace with a 5 room set, 3 up, 2 down including taxidermy workshops. Containing an abundance of simulated sexual and fetishistic activity much of the action revolves around the large central room, the boudoir of Alcina the seductive redhead, who is played marvellously by Patricia Petibon. Above the boudoir is a large piece of equipment with a conveyor, looking very much like the type of baggage x-ray machine seen at airports, which accepts Alcina’s prey at one end, who after passing through, are transformed into fauna or flora at the other. Another significant feature of the mise-en-scène is the ageing process of the singers. As Alcina and her sister Morgana leave the boudoir through the doors they enter the rooms at each side becoming their older self; these are silent roles played by actors. Clearly this is down to the thickness of the dividing walls but cleverly done nevertheless. All this stage activity is operated and facilitated by a quartet of chambermaids one of whom is played by a man dressed in women’s clothing; secondary roles are all played by actors. Costume designer Laura Hopkins has provided a contemporary wardrobe ranging from the extremes of elegant haute couture, black and dark grey servant’s livery to dark army fatigues and military boots.

Soprano Patricia Petibon hits the spot giving a sterling performance as the hedonist sorceress, extrovert and captivating both in acting and in voice. Dressed in long black sequins and lime satin gowns temptress Alcina displays a less outlandish predilection for sexual gratification than her sister and it isn’t long before she is seducing a willing Ruggiero whilst singing her aria ‘Di, cor mio, quanto t'amai’. Alcina is blessed with a considerable number of arias notably ‘Si, son quella, non più bella’ sung with remarkable clarity and expression, ‘Ah, mio cor! Schernito sei!’ in which Petibon's voice moves from a whisper gradually to grow in weight and acting with passionate emotion. Petibon's often bold and vigorous coloratura really suits my taste. The highlight of the score is Alcina's aria ‘Mi restano le lag rime’ with the tormented sorceress proclaiming that she has been abandoned by the Gods and heaven is closed to her. Bright yet smooth, Petibon's agile tone is ravishing, managing to convey so much emotion, especially pathos, in her voice.

Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky presents a wonderful portrayal of the knight Ruggiero, fiancé of Bradamante, whose flesh is weak, held spellbound by Alcina. Ruggiero is engaging in ‘Mio bel Tesoro’, singing with an impressive restrained passion. Alcina, wanting to make love, removes his olive green officer's uniform and he pockets her magic key on a string. It must have been stiflingly hot in the opera house as Jaroussky's shirt is damp with perspiration. Jaroussky's high spot is undoubtedly the celebrated aria ‘Verdi prati’ sung as Ruggiero, concerned about his situation on the island, watches Morgana and Bradamante dancing seductively before dancing himself with Morgana. This is exquisitely rendered by Jaroussky displaying his smooth and unforced, fluid tone and is highly affecting.

Soprano Anna Prohaska with her assured acting prowess seems to wholeheartedly inhabit Bradamante’s world of S and M and makes her sexual needs look convincing when being tied up by the servants or manacled as a prelude for sexual activity, being aroused with a feather tickler and being blindfolded and struck by a riding crop. There is an especially fine all-round performance from Prohaska in ‘Credete al mio dolore’ sung with riveting feeling as she weeps for mercy, expressing the pain of love as she is stuck by Oronte's leather crop. Dressed mainly in valet gowns Prohaska sings with compelling emotional expression and although her delivery and coloratura can sound a touch harsh, her accomplished acting provides compensation. In the role of Oronte, lover of Morgana, clad throughout in a dark suit and white shirt, tenor Anthony Gregory feels like a forgotten character, with most of the action going on around him. Not surprisingly Gregory seems rather distant and one senses a curious lack of involvement which may be down to the stage directions he has been given. Without being outstanding the tenor copes well with ‘È un folle, un vile affetto’ and its challenging coloratura demands.

Katarina Bradić projects impressive dramatic energy as Bradamante who is Ruggiero's fiancée searching for him disguised as knight Ricciardo. Decked out like her fellow soldier Melisso in dark combat fatigues, Bradić is able to change her look drastically when she dons a gorgeous rose coloured dress, albeit with revolver kept hidden in a thigh holster. Excelling in her role from start to finish I relished the mezzo-soprano voice particularly in ‘All'alma fedel’, which displays her well controlled voice with dark, burnished timbre as she prepares plastic explosive devices with her sidekick Melisso. Tall Krzysztof Baczyk plays Melisso, who has little singing to do, but reveals a passionate unforced bass with quite wonderful diction.

Winning the heart of many in the audience is Elias Mädler, a member of the Tölzer Knabenchor, who does remarkably well in the role of Oberto, the boy searching for his father. The challenging arias ‘Chi m'insegna il caro padre’ and notably the lengthy ‘Tra speme e timore’ demonstrate Mädler's undoubted talent, maturity and consistently pleasing voice together with excellent coloratura and all this whilst holding a teddy bear and small suitcase. There is little input from Chœur MusicAeterna who under the direction of Vitaly Polonsly do all that is asked of them. Using period instruments the Freiburger Barockorchester under the assured direction of Andrea Marcon is in stunning form, producing responsive and alert playing that greatly adds to the success of the production.

Filmed in live performance at Grand Théâtre de Provence, the video direction of Corentin Leconte is completely satisfying, keeping his cameras active and not allowing the viewer to fatigue; the HD film looks stunning on my TV screen. Sound quality, a choice of LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital, maintains the same high standard. There is a synopsis provided in the accompanying booklet yet I would have liked some interviews or some footage about the director’s vision behind making the opera.

Michael Cookson


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