Handel, after Ariosto
Opera North, The Lowry, Salford (touring to Newcastle and elsewhere)
February 11, 2022, 2hrs 50mins
To many the notable thing about the Salford performance of Alcina will have been that it gave Australian soprano Sky Ingram the chance to sing the title role.
She’s done some excellent principal roles for Opera North in recent years, but in this show so far she has been the cover for Maire Flavin, waiting for her chance to shine as an enchantress – and at The Lowry she got it.
The opera isn’t just about her, but it certainly can’t do without a singer with real dramatic gifts and top-drawer technique in the role, and she was ready for it. She grabbed the possibilities of Ah! mio cor and the following numbers in Act Two with both hands, bringing a passionate spirit to them all.
The production by Tim Albery comes proudly labelled as Opera North’s “first sustainable production on the main stage”, ie, it’s meant to have a tolerable carbon footprint, and that entails furniture, fabrics and costumes all being vintage, second-hand or re-purposed. Nice idea: in practice you get a projected film backdrop, fairly low-level lighting with some of the lamps themselves visible as part of the design (Hannah Clark), and 10 comfy chairs from the 1960s for the characters to sit on or use as props.
The film, by Ian William Galloway, is the imaginative part of this, transporting us to a magical, palm tree-laden island (as the story requires), where monochrome images seem to be both still and yet in some places clearly moving. It’s a spooky effect, fitting the idea that Alcina has bewitched her former lovers and turned them into trees or stones or animals. She herself loses her humanity and becomes a kind of animal in the end, too – matched by the design.
As with much of Handel opera, not a lot actually happens besides love, betrayal and fury among a small group of characters. The arias express a succession of emotions, one at a time, according to the aesthetic concepts of the first half of the 18th century.
The whole performing team, under Laurence Cummings’ musical direction, was strong indeed. Fflur Wyn in particular, as Morgana, Alcina’s sister, has some great music to sing. Her Tornami a vagheggiar was the first of many high-spot moments as she made her role believable, sung with brilliance.
Patrick Terry, in his company debut as Ruggiero, is a gifted countertenor and able to negotiate all the fancy stuff (in Handel’s day the part would probably have been taken by a castrato). In the story, he and Alcina are lovers at the beginning, and Albery makes sure we don’t miss that point by having them in a clinch on the floor. Alcina is clearly a man-eater and greets her visitors while still lying on her back, ready for the next one. Terry’s best-received aria was Verdi prati, deliberately sung with restraint and gentleness (and subtly accompanied by Cummings and the band).
Marie Askvik is Bradamante – a woman dressed as a man at the outset, because she’s in disguise as her own brother, but really betrothed to Ruggiero. Her vocal quality was never in doubt, and this was an auspicious company debut.
Oronte, who’s in love with Morgana, is tenor Nick Pritchard, making a very decent fist of being one of the few relatively normal people left on the island, and Claire Pascoe sings as Melissa, another enchantress who in this performing edition has been invented out of the original’s bass role of Melisso. The opera has been cut, too, to keep it under three hours – we can just be thankful and not worry about narrative details too much.
As on every night this week in Salford, Opera North’s orchestra began the evening by playing the Ukrainian national anthem as “a moment of contemplation and reflection” before the performance. Almost everyone in the house stood up.