Saturday 10 October 2015

Handel - Alcina (Aix-en-Provence, 2015 - Webcast)

George Frideric Handel - Alcina

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2015

Andrea Marcon, Katie Mitchell, Patricia Petibon, Philippe Jaroussky, Anna Prohaska, Katarina Bradić, Anthony Gregory, Krzysztof Baczyk, Elias Mädler

Opera Platform - July 2015

Katie Mitchell's production of Alcina for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival has more in common with the lavish Vienna State Opera production than the recent disappointing minimalist faux-period production directed by Pierre Audi at La Monnaie. Like the Vienna Alcina, it recognises that the seductive power of illusion is at the heart of the work, but Mitchell's staging is a little more adventurous and modern in how it gets that across, not allowing the same illusion to overwhelm the harsher edge of the underlying reality.

Certainly the opening Act isn't at all reticent about showing the dark nature of a sorceress who seduces men and then turns them into wild animals, trees and rocks. In the Vienna production this was a decadent parlour game play on those themes that allowed it to retain a certain distance. In Katie Mitchell's production it's still the decadence of a wealthy elite, the principal action taking place in a luxury bedroom rather than on an enchanted island, but there 's rather more of an effort to get 'behind the scenes' here.

Most evidently, there is the nature of the bedroom activities that Alcina and her sister Morgana are shown to perform on the poor addled men who fall under their spell. Alcina's writhing around on top of Ruggiero is saucy enough, but Morgana's inclinations are rather more kinky, involving her being strapped to the bed, blindfolded and whipped by 'Ricciardo' (Bradamante in disguise) in a manner that has become more prevalent on the opera stage of late. It won't be the first time '50 Shades of Gray' has been referenced here, but in a strange way there is some kind of justification for it in the stylisations of Baroque opera, or at least in this one anyway.

Chloe Lamford's set design also helps brings out something more of gap between dark desires and surface expression. The set is very similar in design to the one Katie Mitchell used for Written on Skin's world première production at Aix in 2012. To the side of the boudoir lie a couple of adjoining rooms or caverns, where Alcina and Morgana's 'glamour' drops and they take the form of older women, cleverly transforming as they sweep out of one room and into the next. It's a simple trick, but an effective one that hints at those different levels of reality that the opera works on. It's not without a humorous touch either, the upper level holding a 'transforming machine' that turns discarded conquest into stuffed animals to be housed in glass cages.

There's ample justification for this multi-scene approach in the music, which alternates delicate melodies and strident rhythms, but each of the characters - typically in a Baroque opera - operates within their own reality, and it's usually one that doesn't fit and conflicts with the reality of others. Mitchell's staging and some good direction establishes the relationships between the characters well, with the addition of silent assistants for Morgana and Alcina to carry out their magic. It works effectively not only to depict the differing realities, but by showing them simultaneously in their rooms it even helps to bring them together and co-exist in a way that Baroque opera rarely does on its own.

Which, as far as I'm concerned, is great, because notwithstanding that Alcina has some of Handel's most poignant and beautiful arias, I've never felt convinced by the overall tone of the work and how it tells its story. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyrique's  beautiful precise rhythms captured something of the harder edge of the magic undercurrents if not the wider romantic sweep of the work at La Monnaie. Andrea Marcon's rather loose and free conducting of the Freiburger Barockorchester by contrast, elegant and refined as it remains, doesn't really capture what is a fairly horrific and unpleasant situation for all, and not just in the magic aspect of changing humans into savage beasts, but the relationships too are all fairly abusive and marked by betrayal, jealousy and vengeance.

The singing is perhaps more important in conveying those emotions than the music alone, and happily, the casting for Alcina at Aix is interesting and successful. Impressive even in the case of Patricia Petibon. The measure of an Alcina is found in its main arias and the best of them are in Act II (although ordering and positioning can vary). They are best placed in Act II however, where their conflicting emotions work so well off one another. Alcina's 'Ah! Mio cor' is the key aria of course, determining whether we sympathise with Alcina's predicament or not, and although Mitchell has already done lots of work stripping her bare in her transformations, Petibon is pretty much devastating here on her own account.

It's fantastic to have a countertenor in the role of Ruggiero, particularly one as good as Philippe Jaroussky. His 'Mi lusinga il dolce affetto' not only excuses his inadvertent betrayal of Bradamante, but succeeds in competing for one's sympathies against those that Petibon evokes so powerfully for Alcina. Mitchell even complicates the situation by deepening Bradamante's mixed feelings with a suggestion that Alcina is left pregnant by Ruggiero. A genuinely youthful and sympathetic Oberto adds another emotional dimension in his heartbreaking search for his father and it's sung wonderfully here by Elias Mädler. Big arias also proved the worth of Anna Prohaska's Morgana in her 'Tornami a vagheggiar', while the 50 Shades whipping she receives from Oronte's Gray during her 'Credete al mio dolore' is a fitting 'punishment'. It certainly seems to help her get to those high notes.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Opera Platform