The week in classic: Alcina; the blue woman

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<p><figcaption class=Photography: Tristram Kenton

The dubious magic of witchcraft seldom casts a spell on a skeptical modern audience, so staging Handel’s witchcraft opera alcin (1735) can be a serious challenge. The new Glyndebourne production offers a solution: move the play away from a mysterious and enchanted island to another place of equal enchantment: the theater; in particular, an Italian magazine from the 1960s, where glamour, intrigue and simmering sexiness are always in the spotlight.

Any decent cabaret should have showmanship, wit, charm, fabulous music and, of course, good singing, and this production achieves most of those goals, even if the puzzling plot remains stubbornly opaque. Francesco Micheli, making his directorial debut at Glyndebourne, introduces Alcina the Sorceress as a sequined femme fatale swathed in feather boas and fur, attended by a bevy of leggy chorus girls. On Handel’s fantasy island, she turns her lovers into solid stone or into wild animals. Here at the Lyric Theater, she simply condemns them to sit through the show.

Some will find this too shallow, but there’s no denying it’s a great show. The grand stage arias that make this opera a supreme example of the baroque are given full dazzling treatment from an exotic peacock-tailed setting, complete with pedestrian steps. It’s funny, sassy, ​​and a little wacky, while only managing to keep the psychological niceties of Handel’s characterization, in particular Alcina’s slow disintegration as her magical powers slowly slip from his grasp.

Opera is cruel to its heroines. Think of Carmen, Lulu, Gilda, Tosca and Butterfly

Making an impressive Glyndebourne debut as Alcina is Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, who shines and shines through the role’s wide emotional range, particularly highlighted in her lament Ah! my heart Another highly anticipated debut is by British soprano Soraya Mafi, whose dazzlingly bright and agile coloratura thrilled audiences across Britain for several seasons before Covid. She steals the limelight from her as Alcina’s scheming sister, Morgana: flirtatious, vengeful, and delightfully frivolous. Her entrance in a mermaid outfit is outrageous; her lively retelling of the Tornami aria to vagheggiar simply spectacular.

She falls in love with “Ricciardo”, actually Bradamante disguised as his brother, who arrives determined to rescue his partner, Ruggiero, who has fallen under the spell of the showgirl Alcina. Scottish mezzo Beth Taylor, as Bradamante, is another Glyndebourne debutante and impresses with her incisive technique, while charming soprano Rowan Pierce has great fun as little Oberto.

The spectacular Soraya Mafi as Morgana with Stuart Jackson as Oronte in Alcina. Photography: Tristram Kenton

American mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey sings Ruggiero, the central role Handel assigned to the castrato Carestini, a sexual ambiguity that carries over to Micheli’s performance, adding an additional twist to the already fast-paced plot. She sings with immense style, even if the line is sometimes too low for her register. Her farewell from the island, Verdi prati, was heartbreaking.

The extravagant costumes are by Alessio Rosati. Edoardi Sanchi’s design transitions seamlessly from stage to dressing room to backstage, beautifully lit by Bruno Poet. Mike Ashcroft adds some truly enjoyable choreography, brought to life by the energetic performance of the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra, under the confident direction of Jonathan Cohen. Let’s go. You won’t know anything about the plot, but that’s the way show business is.

Opera is cruel to its heroines. Think of Carmen, Lulu, Gilda, Tosca and Butterfly. Used and abused, they meet violent ends. But the world has changed since those characters were created. With the aim of starting to restore balance is a new experimental piece, the blue womanThe result of a collaboration between composer Laura Bowler, librettist Laura Lomas, director Katie Mitchell, conductor Jamie Man, designer Lizzie Clachan, and video editor Grant Gee.

It aggressively deals with the ruinous psychological aftermath of rape in a part acting, part cinematic format. Four singers (Elaine Mitchener, Lucy Schaufer, Gweneth Ann Rand, and Rosie Middleton) sit on a bare stage, accompanied by four cellists (Louise McMonagle, Su-a Lee, Tamaki Sugimoto, and Clare O’Connell). Over them runs a beautifully shot movie, in which actress Eve Ponsonby personifies all the women who obsessively search for the person they once were before being raped.

Bowler’s score is often spare and somber, as one would expect, but also surprisingly rich in texture, generating some amazing sound effects by combining four voices, four cellos, percussion and electronics. Lomas’ libretto is powerfully poetic, with the singers hurling their words at the audience like shards of glass in an hour of quietly suppressed rage.

Eve Ponsonby with the singers and cellists of The Blue Woman.

‘An hour of calmly controlled rage’: Eve Ponsonby (top) with the singers and cellists of The Blue Woman. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

We can argue whether this totally static piece is really an opera, but that doesn’t matter. It is a statement, a constancy, an exploration of the human experience that is too often avoided because it is too painful to contemplate. Music has the power to take us out of this world, but the blue woman shows that it can also challenge us to stare at its reality, and not look away.

Star ratings (out of five)
alcin
★★★★
the blue woman
★★★

  • alcin is in Glyndebourne, East Sussex, until August 24

  • the blue woman is at the Royal Opera House in London until July 11

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