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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Reviewed at the Britten Theatre, London

This revival of James Conway’s production of Alcina was part of ETO’s laudably ambitious Handelfest which has played the Britten Theatre before touring the UK. Musically excellent and dramatically fine it was for me partially undermined by the production concept.

The central tenet of Conway’s production was to strip away the magical aspects of the opera and set if firmly in the human world as a clash between a faded but luxuriant Stuart past and a virtuous Puritan present. Leaving aside the rather obvious fact that the Puritans are hardly going to get many votes as a sympathetic group (especially from an Opera audience!) the loss of the magical aspect reduces the opera to a simple clash of loyalties in love. It also hugely lessens the stature of Alcina as a character and casts Ruggiero in a deeply unsympathetic light since he no longer has the excuse of being under an enchantment to excuse his infidelity. However, despite these strong reservations, one can admire the often riveting dramatic performances that Conway elicits from his cast.

Far and away the most exceptional performance was that of Natasha Jouhl who, as well as stunning singing, gave a hair raising portrayal of a disintegrating personality. Her complete dramatic commitment reminded me of Anna Caterina Antonacci and I can think of no higher praise. She has the added benefit of being exceptionally beautiful. My only query would be why on earth she was saddled with a vile set of brown stockings in the first acts!

Wendy Dawn Thomas looked gorgeous as Ruggiero and ably charted the character’s vacillations. Unfortunately, even in a small house, she seemed underpowered for a role which requires much in the martial posturing vein. It did occur to me that she could with advantage have swapped roles with Carolyn Dobbin’s excellent Bradamante.

Celeste Lazarenko’s Morgana was somewhat dramatically compromised by her change in status but she sang well and made the most of what was left of her character. She didn’t quite bring the house down with "Tornami a vagheggiar" but the audience were terribly restrained all evening.

The lesser characters suffered most from the change of location. Nathan Vale, saddled with a hideous wig, was reduced from Alcina’s noble long suffering General to a jealous lout (first cousin to Masetto) and Neil Baker’s Melisso already deadly dull character (Another Bass tutor!!) was further compromised by being converted to an Oliver Cromwell lookalike.

The ETO orchestra produced excellent often ravishing playing under conductor Robert Howarth. Unfortunately the terribly dry acoustics in the Britten Theatre has a tendency to make the strings sound undernourished.

This was an evening of high achievement and highly enjoyable despite my feeling out of sympathy for the production concept. As other excellent reviews have already shown ETO has succeeded in bringing off a hugely ambitious tribute to Handel in his 250th commemorative year.

- Sebastian Petit


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