Life’s a beach on Alcina’s love island

It is intriguing that a wave of Alcinas is hitting our opera houses. Opera North has dived in first with a pared down Handelian adventure for this Baroque menage or menagerie a cinq on the sorceress’ love island.

Characters wonder on stage and wonder off again, usually after singing but not always, and there is plenty of shuffling around of the comfy looking chairs that are just about the only stage furniture. Add to that a bear skin and a couple of staffs, at least one of which is magical – oh and some bits of armour and swords. It is all elegant and measured.

The setting of a mystical island is achieved through the use of Ian Galloway’s video backdrop (we sweep across the sea to arrive at Alcina’s island and similarly depart when the plot concludes). This actually worked extremely well as we seem to be drawn deeper into what became more a dark than decadent false paradise.

Tim Albery’s staging for Opera North opts to avoid almost everything you would expect or even hope for in a theatrical staging of such a weird and wonderful tale of transformations, magic and illusion, bar people having to appear to and move around. The result is the focus is very much on the singers, dressed in glamourous contemporary gowns and dinner suits, as they lounge around this apparent idyll.

Fflur Wynn and Nick Pritchard

Máire Flavin, Fflur Wynn and Nick Pritchard

Máire Flavin and Mari Askvik

The effect is to create a louche atmosphere, and this is reflected in the sort of bubbling under rather than fizzing chemistry that exists between Alcina, Ruggiero and Bradamante. Yes, Alcina finally cracks but otherwise it has the feel of a nice Downtown Abbey dinner party without Maggie Smith – all rather refined. This contrasts with the fire between Alcina’s feisty sister Morgana and her long-suffering paramour Oronte.

So, with a minimalist set, unfussy staging and generally scant direction, it all comes down to the singing and orchestra. No problems at all with the latter as Handel expert Laurence Cummings kept us gripped and showed sympathy with his musicians and the singers.

The evening rests on these singers. In the title role Irish soprano Máire Flavin looks and sounds majestic, drama and emotion fill her demanding arias as she ranges from supreme to basically mad. Always an enchanting enchantress if it may not have been a pyrotechnic extravagance. American counter tenor Patrick Terry gives a languid and sweetly lyrical performance as Ruggiero while Norwegian mezzo Mari Askvik is a strong and commanding presence throughout as a statuesque Bradamante. The gender vagueness of these two roles under Albery’s direction is interesting.

Delightful Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn sings a fabulous Morgana in the most roundly satisfying performance of the evening, and her own love interest, the somewhat wet character Oronte, sung by Nick Pritchard rises to the occasion when needed. A rather sinister Melissa is securely sung and acted by Claire Pascoe, as she weaves her own strange magic.

It is a delicious evening for the ear if short on visual garnish.

Grand Theatre Leeds until February 17 and touring until March 24.

Images: James Glossop

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