Handelian enchantment upon Alcina’s magic island

HANDEL – Alcina

Presented by Opera In a Days Bay Garden

Producer – Rhona Fraser

Director – Sara Brodie

Conductor – Michael Vinten

(orchestra led by Donald Armstrong)

(sung in English, translation by Amanda Holden)

Cast: Alcina (Bryony Williams) / Ruggiero (Stephen Diaz) / Bradamante (Bianca Andrew)

Morgana (Rhona Fraser) / Oberto (Olga Gryniewicz) / Oronte (Thomas Atkins) / Melisso (Kieran Rayner)

Chorus: Amelia Ryman, Imogen Thirwell, Emily Simcox, Natalie Williams, Fredi Jones, Laurence Walls, Thomas Barker, Ken Ryan

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Saturday, 11 February

Magic of a kind was certainly in the air both leading up to and throughout the performance of Handel’s Alcina, staged in the garden of Canna House, the Days Bay home of one of the singers in the cast, soprano Rhona Fraser, who took the part of Morgana in the production. With a director, Sara Brodie, whose vision, theatrical instinct and creative capacities made light of the difficulties of a very “Baroque-opera” story-line, the out-of-doors production by turns sparkled and glowed, judiciously balancing and shaping the drama’s movement and energy with cadence-points of heartrending beauty and reflection.

We were seated on terraces in front of the house on various levels, our vistas taking in the largest of the grassy areas, on which most of the theatrical action took place, and thence to bush-clad valley-sides framing a harbour view, the picture redolent of the opera’s actual setting, the magic island realm of the enchantress Alcina. The only slight inconvenience we experienced was directly facing the sun for the time it took to move across the wedge of sky in the west during the opera’s first half – by way of “compensation by enchantment” we were, throughout the second half, able to enjoy the evening star in all its crepuscular glory, prompting thoughts of imagining that a production of “Tannhauser” would go down well in such a setting (I can almost see and hear the chorus of Pilgrims slowly making its way up the arc of the driveway from the road…..)

As one might imagine, the setting provided all kinds of opportunities for different exits, entrances and “layered” action – at the very outset of the story we were intrigued and amused with the sudden pursuit of a silver-haired figure by several “gorillas in suits” down the path towards the front gate. Presumably, an escape of some kind was in mind – but, alas for the “inmate” concerned, freedom was not achieved. Nevertheless, with the singers freely coming and going on all different levels, and practically brushing past audience members in some instances, it wasn’t difficult for spectators to be drawn into the actual physical ebb-and-flow of things, sharing, as we seemed to be for much of the time, the same living-and-breathing-spaces. I ought to report, however, that a friend, sitting on the lawn in the third row, over to the right, had a less-than-good view of some of the action, and a tad too much sun in her eyes for a while – so obviously not ALL of the seating was without some compromise.

The opera’s original story was taken from the epic poem Orlando Furioso by the sixteenth-century Italian Ludovico Ariosto, and involved plenty of fashionable enchantment and magical transformation, liberally taken up by Antonio Marshi’s libretto for Handel. Of course, the current trend vis-a-vis opera production is to update such scenarios (as comedian Michael Flanders once said in a slightly different context, “Anything to stop it being done straight!”) so that opera-goers find themselves fair game for directorial reworkings that can in the wrong hands vary between the prosy-dull and the downright offensive. Sara Brodie’s design and direction adroitly maintained a tantalizing modicum of the sorceress’s mystery, while suggesting in parallel some kind of medico-scientific experimental scenario involving the ageing process. One of the characters, Morgana (sister-enchantress of the Circe-like Alcina) sported a nurse’s tunic at the start, and seemed in charge of a chorus group of “inmates” whose aspect presented ghostly decrepitude and bewilderment – though the “suits” in their shades were designated as security guards rather than caregivers.

In this way the production certainly toyed most imaginatively with the ideas floated in the programme’s “synopsis” note, concerning reality and illusion, and the power of true love. The flights of fancy which cropped up in the updated libretto for the most part seemed actually to counterweight some of the original ones (the soldier, Melisso, imitating an apparition and declaring to the ex-soldier Ruggiero that he, the former, is the latter’s old sergeant – instead of his old tutor – for example)! Of course, however cardboard cut-out some operatic situations might be, it’s invariably the music which ennobles and crystallizes thought, word and deed on stage – and in my view any recasting of these pieces in whatever style or era will work if the composer’s intentions are properly honoured. As recitative followed dialogue followed aria and back to recitative, music and dramatic action seemed to fit hand-in-glove on the terraces and pathways of this wonderful Days Bay garden – obviously all kinds of enchantments were at work, here.

Still more connection was readily provided by the orchestra, seated to one side, but sharing the main stage level area with the singers. This meant that the players and conductor seemed more than usually involved with the drama, and the choreography of instrumental gesturing, so often concealed in the opera house here became almost part of the stage action. At one point Handel nicely underlines this singer/instrumentalist relationship with extended passages for solo violin accompanying Morgana’s aria “He loves, he sighs”. This took on the intent of a true operatic duet up to a break-point when Alcina, agitated by the thought of her lover’s infidelity, hustled the poor violinist from the stage!

Having had limited experience of out-of-doors opera, I was prepared for a somewhat compromised orchestral sound with little or no resonances – and was instead delighted with the al fresco effect, the players’ tones nicely activating the receptive stillness of the evening in that sheltered spot. I also liked the musicians’ dress and wigs, none more so than that sported by conductor Michael Vinten, the effect being almost as if the shade of the composer himself had miraculously materialized to conduct the performance!

So, at the story’s beginning, following the excitement of the thwarted breakout, we witnessed the commando-like arrival on Alcina’s island of Bradamante and her colleague Melisso, dressed as soldiers in camouflage gear. They were looking for Bradamante’s lover, Ruggiero, who had, like many others, fallen under Alcina’s enchantment. Mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew played Bradamante, suitably boyish in military attire, and a perfect foil for baritone Kieran Rayner as the hard-bitten Melisso, the pair as well-disciplined with their tactical manoeuvrings as with the focus and direction of their singing and characterizations. Their first encounter was with Rhona Fraser’s Morgana, her nurse’s garb straightaway all a-quiver, conveying her instantly combustible interest in Bradamante. Before long she had coquettishly dismissed out-of-hand her hapless current lover, Oronte, a tenor role played by an engagingly boyish Thomas Atkins, who was understandably put out by the arrival on the island of these troublesome visitors.

When Ruggiero arrived in tow with the beautiful Alcina, they presented as a well-established “item”, the pair utterly besotted with one another, to Bradamante’s scarcely-concealed distress. Soprano Bryony Williams and counter-tenor Stephen Diaz made an exceedingly glamorous-looking couple, throwing into bold relief the chorus of spectre-like ancients, grey of hair and decrepit of aspect, almost ghost-like, carefully watched-over by Morgana and her Mafia-like cohorts. The remaining player in the scenario was the boy-scout-like figure of Oberto (a late addition by Handel to the story, apparently, to include in his cast a famous boy-treble of the time, William Savage). Soprano Olga Gryniewicz brought a charmingly boyish manner and a silvery voice to her portrayal of a young man looking for his lost father.

The “adventures on a magic island” theme has many rich and strange instances throughout world literature and theatre from Homeric times and beyond. Most recently there’s been the New York Metropolitean Opera’s live-streamed production “The Enchanted Isle”, an amalgam of fantasy works for the stage (mostly a combination of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest”) placing characters from these various works on Prospero’s magic island and developing various conflicts and romantic entanglements.

Obviously, there’s something about an island environment that lends itself to a kind of other-worldliness, where mainland traditions are tested, modified and even transformed by different orders of things. Such is certainly the case with the plot of Alcina, even if on the face of it, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism, “the good end happily, and the bad unhappily”. By far the most interesting character is Alcina, herself, at least as characterized by Handel’s music, some of the greatest for the stage he ever wrote. One or two malevolent impulses and actions aside, she garners the listener’s sympathies by dint of her extraordinary declarations of love and piteous laments, suggesting that Ruggiero’s sojourn with her has somehow humanized her nature to the point that her dark arts no longer work as she would desire.

From her first entrance Bryony Williams’ Alcina dominated the proceedings – striking to look at, her characterizations compelling and her singing simply captivating, she lived the part throughout all of its different aspects. She encompassed the erotic sensuousness of her opening aria “Show them the forests”, and through the sudden tribulations and heart-break of her hurt at Ruggiero’s accusations  in “Yes I am she” to the despair at the loss of his love in “Ah, my heart”. Her soft singing in particular, throughout, touched our inner places; and though some of her more vigorously-produced tones tended to splinter at their effortful edges she always conveyed an impressive totality of characterful feeling, so that our sensibilities at her eventual fate were beset at the evening’s end by a good deal of ambivalent impulse (all the fault of the composer, of course).

Her ownership of the role was never more evident than in her Act Two aria “Ah, my heart”, an affecting concentration of emotion, the veiled tones exquisitely shaped and coloured, even more so at the reprise, after her energetic resolve with “But can this be Alcina?” . The whole strengthened one’s ambivalent sympathies for a character whose cruel customs and tender emotions were at such odds with each other and with the beauty of some of her music – a state of things strongly and tellingly advanced by the singer. Again, with both her dark and impotent invocations at “You pale shadows” (generating plenty of exciting vocal virtuosity), and her broken utterances with “Only tears remain to me” she commanded our attention for whole vistas – and Michael Vinten and his players were right with her throughout, the instrumental sounds breathing and mirroring the same heartfelt phrases in complete accord.

Opposite her as Ruggiero, counter-tenor Stephen Diaz used well a natural and easeful stage-presence, his soft singing a joy (the Act Two “Verdant Pastures” was beautifully and raptly sung), and his unfailing charm of manner carrying him through the occasional phrase of borderline intonation – though I thought his reaction to Bradamante’s identity revelation surprisingly ingenuous in manner. Happily, he more readily captured the audience’s attention with a nicely-pointed sotto voce delivery of the asides in the aria “My cherished love” – and it was a nice idea to blindfold him and lead him to the tent where his faithful and frustrated Bradamante had earlier rendered herself comatose with an unaccustomed puff from a hookah – a nice way to end the opera’s first half.

Bradamante is reckoned by some commentators as representing reality, common-sense, duty and fidelity, as opposed to Alcina’s escapist romantic fantasy-allurements – though such readings conveniently play down the heroic and romantic nature of the former’s escapade in attempting to regain her lover. Bianca Andrew had the presence and vocal strength to convey the character’s firm resolve and steadfastness, standing up to the threat posed by the fury of Oronte in her aria “I see you are jealous”, during which she skilfully negotiated a touch of rhythmic insecurity at the words “you feel offended”. Even stronger was the exciting use she put to the coloratura runs of “I long to be avenged”, by way of expressing her frustration and anger with Ruggiero, after he refuses to believe she is who she says she is, and then all but baring her womanly breast to make the point more graphically.

In a sense, Morgana, Alcina’s sister, is just as much Bradamante’s opposite – the latter’s Leonore-like steadfastness a stark contrast to Morgana’s coquetry, the irony being that it is the disguised Bradamante whom Morgana falls for at the outset. Rhona Fraser acted superbly, using her face nicely in tandem with her voice, and eagerly expressing the exuberance of her “Come quickly back” to Bradamante, believing that he (she) returned her love. Though not every note was ideally secure, her singing was invariably expressive, the effect always musical – and what a lovely duet she made with violinist Donald Armstrong in her “He loves, he sighs”! – attempting to explain to both Ruggiero and Alcina that the new boy on the block, Bradamante, is already “spoken for”.

Morgana’s hapless lover, Oronte, is really too straight-down-the-middle a guy for such a flirtatious partner, though his susceptibility to womanly charms is all too obvious in his “One moment’s happiness” aria. Thomas Atkins seemed just the man for the job, bright-eyed and ready for whatever main chance might present itself. Though his wide-ranging vocal lines weren’t ideally pliant in places, he was never less than reliable;  and towards the end the choreographed ritual of his reconciliation with Morgana made their scene eminently worthwhile.

Even more ramrod-straight was Bradamante’s soldier-companion Melisso, though he obviously would have a future beyond the army as a virtual reality facilitator, demonstrated by his assumption of the role of a senior sergeant to bring Ruggiero to his senses. Kieran Rayner brought a lighter, more than usually agile and flexible baritonal voice to the part, though he generated plenty of authority when needed. He was thus able to make something both strong and elegant of his one aria, “Think of her who mourns” addressed to a somewhat bewildered Ruggiero. By comparison with the macho-Melisso, Olga Gryniewicz’s Oberto was a boy-soldier, touchingly gauche of manner, but sufficiently steadfast to defy Alcina’s command to kill the lion which the boy suspects is really his transformed father. Her singing-voice was exotically accented, but her superb diction really told as the boy lamented the loss of his father and gave tongue to his hopes of finding him again.

Having been held in a kind of thrall for so long by Alcina’s enchantments, the chorus members at the end perhaps understandably overdid their exuberance at being freed and returned to youthful vigor by racing ahead of Michael Vinten’s beat in their final chorus “After so many bitter trials” – necessitating some echt-Handelian gestures of frustration from the podium of the kind that would probably have had many a historical precedent! I’m certain my ears weren’t playing me false in imagining that it was Vinten’s voice I heard singing the first of the individual chorus members’ descriptions of their enchanted forms – a filling-in for an absent singer, perhaps, or merely an expression of solidarity?….. after that I almost expected to hear some admonishment from the conductor regarding the final ensemble, perhaps along the lines of Handel’s proverbially fractured English, thus: “You vatch my beatings and vave at the gallery aftervards!” – but perhaps that would have been applying historical verisimilitude a little too liberally.

Apart from these moments of excessive zeal the chorus acquitted itself sturdily and tellingly, if more often as a visual rather than a vocal presence. The orchestra was a band of heroes under Michael Vinten’s obviously inspired direction, the players’ sweetly-focused tones and elegant rhythmic figurations a joy to hear, providing the singers all the support they needed throughout.

Alcina is herself transformed at the end of the opera and her power is taken from her – though I felt her “closure” here somehow lacked true finality, perhaps in accordance with Handel’s own ambivalence towards her. Or again, as with other villains and their influences, it was intended that her spirit lived on, and that she would re-emerge in some parallel guise at another time and in another place. In a way it was characteristic of Sara Brodie’s direction to not cross and dot every “t” and “i” for us, but leave us tantalized by the experience of the encounter in an ongoing way.

At the time of writing, the production has two more nights to run (Thursday 16th and Friday 17th February) – it deserves full-to-bursting houses and clement weather of the kind we were lucky to experience. One sincerely hopes there will be more of these wonderful productions from Rhona Fraser and Opera in a Days Bay Garden.












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