Alcina at the Royal Opera House review: spellbinding and unmissable

Lisette Oropesa in Alcina  (Marc Brenner)
Lisette Oropesa in Alcina (Marc Brenner)

In Handel’s gloriously tuneful opera Alcina the eponymous enchantress presides over a realm of hedonism in which former lovers have been turned into wild beasts.

Richard Jones’s endlessly inventive staging, his most inspired for many years, is, on one level, rooted approximately in the age of Handel’s primary source, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso – here English Puritanism – and at the same time firmly in the modern day.

During the overture we see a group of Puritans transformed by Alcina’s magic into the rather endearing, sometimes exotic, animals forming her entourage. It’s an ingenious way of suggesting the barren reality that lies beneath Alcina’s allure.

Here, the vessel that dispenses her magic is an iconic bottle of scent, sexualised Jean Paul Gaultier-style and mounted on a pedestal. Her glittering dress, the ubiquitous ruched curtains and the black box in which she spirals into depression in her final Act III aria reference Amy Winehouse. If there’s more than a whiff of camp in this Alcina, it somehow doesn’t seem out of place.

There’s also a modern twist at the end. When the animals turn back into Puritans, their feeling of loss, of the breaking of their connection to the natural world, is palpable. Rejecting soulless Puritanism they abandon their dogmatic texts for The Joy of Sex.

Malakai M Bayoh, a star in the making, in Alcina (Marc Brenner)
Malakai M Bayoh, a star in the making, in Alcina (Marc Brenner)

The role of Alcina is taken by the Cuban–American soprano Lisette Oropesa, whose starring roles at Covent Garden have included a highly acclaimed Violetta in La Traviata. She here embodies both the sexual allure and the emotional fragility of the character –Handel’s psychological acuity seems so modern – and her singing is no less dazzlingly brilliant, with some stratospheric decoration.

It lacks, however, the human warmth and expressivity that mark the greatest exponents of such roles. Emily D’Angelo’s Ruggiero (the lover who finally resists her charms) produces some lovely phrasing and fine singing without yet quite touching the heart as she might.

The most accomplished exemplar of the Handelian style is Mary Bevan as Alcina’s scheming, highly sexed sister, Morgana, in a class of her own. Rupert Charlesworth as Oronte is another natural Handelian with an attractive voice, skilfully deployed, even if tested at the extremes of pitch and dynamics.

Varduhi Abrahamyan and José Coca Loza are admirable as Bradamante and Atlante respectively. The part of Oberto, a boy searching for his father (who’s been turned into a lion) is taken by Malakai M Bayoh, one of whose arias brought the house down. A star in the making.

A Baroque-sized ensemble was selected from the ROH orchestra, with the addition of two theorbists, two harpsichords and a period cello, the latter played exquisitely by Hetty Snell. They all displayed extraordinary sensitivity to the style under the peerless direction of Christian Curnyn, whose well-chosen tempi avoided the senseless jet-propelled delivery that too often mars performances of Handel operas.

The strength of Jones’s often humorous, impressively nuanced production lies in its recognition that modernity’s obsession with unfettered sensuality has its downside. But Handel sprinkled his own magic dust on this score, helping to make the whole experience as spellbinding as it’s unmissable.

Royal Opera House, to November 26;