In what is a momentous week for the lyric arts in this country, ENO chose to honour the re-opening of The Royal Opera House with a brand new production of Handel's 'fantasy' opera, Alcina. And, as star-studded as the ROH's gala opening evening was, I cannot help but think that ENO have somewhat overshadowed the re-opening of that essential building.
ENO have come up trumps with this marvelously theatrical staging by David McVicar with sumptuous designs by Michael Vale.. Handel's operas have notoriously tricky plots - this one deals with the sorceress Alcina who has lured Ruggiero into her kingdom to be her lover. Ruggiero's betrothed, Bradamante is determined to get him back. Alcina's sister, Morgana falls in love with Bradamante. To make matters worse, a woman (originally written for a castrato) plays Ruggiero, and Bradamante is a woman, played by a woman, disguised as a man! Confused? You will be!
What McVicar succeeds in portraying is a melee of sexual ambivalence and cross gender activity. Which characters have genuine feelings for each other? Which characters simply want to jump in the sack with each other? McVicar delineates between the two with an uncanny eye for detail and feeling, which makes it hard to believe what insight Handel had into the human psyche. Has any composer since managed to touch the heart with such sublime music? Probably not and when the music is performed so impeccably as here one regrets many other nights spent at the opera with second rate music.
In a cast that contains no weak link, it seems invidious to pick out anyone as the true 'star' of the show, but vocal honours must go to Sarah Connolly as Ruggiero. A fine Xerxes a couple of seasons ago, and fresh from huge acclaim for her performances as Ariodante in New York, she has added weight to her lower register and now has a freer coloratura. She is such a treasurable artist and was rightly rewarded the biggest ovation of the evening. In the title role Joan Rodgers does not give the best performance I've heard from this versatile artist. Some top-notes are strained, but that is a small price to pay for her impeccable artistry. Christine Rice is excellent as Bradamante, and as Alcina's sister Morgana, Lisa Milne finally proves why everyone is raving about this young Scottish soprano - a complete triumph.
Excellent choreography from Michael Keegan-Dolan and Sue Blane's costumes are simply to die for. Meanwhile, expert Handelian and former music director Sir Charles Mackerras leads an energetic performance from the pit whilst the orchestra play like angels. Utterly unmissable.