Opera Scotland

Alcina

Music
George Frideric Handel (born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759)

Text
Anonymous, attributed to Antonio Marchi, and previously set by Albinoni (1725).

Source
Epic poem Orlando furioso (1516) by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1535).

Premières
First performance: London (Covent Garden), 16 April 1735.
First performance in Scotland: Ledlanet, Kinross-shire, 25 September 1969.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Background
Alcina was one of the most successful of Handel’s operas in his own day, and after nearly two centuries of oblivion was one of the first to be persistently revived in the modern era. The subject matter is exotic, and the plot as convoluted as was generally the case at the time. However the quality and variety of the music is quite wonderful, and entirely justifies regular revival.

Characters
Alcina, an enchantress, in love with Ruggiero (soprano)
Bradamante, a young lady, disguised as her brother Ricciardo (contralto)
Melisso, her guardian (bass)
Ruggiero, a knight (mezzo-soprano)
Morgana, sister of Alcina (soprano)
Oronte, Alcina’s General, in love with Morgana (tenor)
Oberto, a young nobleman (soprano or treble)

Plot Summary
Alcina, a sorceress, governs a magic island in the company of her sister Morgana and her military leader, Oronte. Any men attracted to her who visit the island are turned into animals, trees, or rocks. The knight Ruggiero is infatuated with Alcina, but has not yet been transmogrified because she has fallen for him. Bradamante, who was previously betrothed to him, has pursued him to the island. She is disguised as a man, and accompanied by her tutor, Melisso. They have been shipwrecked, and are met by Morgana, who tells them where they are and promptly falls for this supposed young man, herself. She introduces them to Alcina’s court, where they are made welcome. Apart from Ruggiero there is also a youth, Oberto, who has come to the island in search of his father, one of Alcina’s earlier victims. By the end of the first act a confused situation has arisen involving mutual suspicion and jealousy on the part of all the major characters.

Melisso upbraids Ruggiero for neglecting his military duties, and gives him an enchanted ring which destroys his love for Alcina and restores his memories of Bradamante. Ruggiero now intends to free the previously enchanted victims and then leave the island, but he continues to deceive Alcina meantime. However Oronte tells Alcina the truth, and she plans her revenge. Morgana is also offended by witnessing the reunion of Ruggiero and Bradamante, and successfully begs Oronte to forgive her. Ruggiero rejects Alcina for the last time, and uses the enchanted ring to shatter the urn that protects Alcina’s power. Her armies of monsters are vanquished and her victims are restored to human form, including Oberto’s father. Oronte is spared, but Alcina and Morgana flee, defeated.

RECORDINGS

EMI (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1985

Conductor: Richard Hickox
City of London Baroque Sinfonia
Arleen Augér (Alcina), Eiddwen Harrhy (Morgana), Della Jones (Ruggiero),
Kathleen Kuhlmann (Bradamante), Maldwyn Davies (Oronte).

Richard Hickox was generally a lively conductor of Handel and, also in 1985, he conducted an enjoyable production of Orlando with Scottish Opera, in which Eiddwen Harrhy sang the leading role of Angelica. His specialist baroque orchestra make an excellent impression. The singers are all well suited to their roles, and employ an appropriate degree of decorative skill in the aria repeats. Arleen Augér gives a moving account of the title role, showing her gradual decline and disintegration through the last two acts. Kathleen Kuhlmann makes a vivid character of Bradamante and Della Jones as Ruggiero gives a superbly dramatic account of her arias. The cast also includes John Tomlinson as Melisso.

DECCA (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1962

Conductor: Richard Bonynge
London Symphony Orchestra
Joan Sutherland (Alcina), Graziella Sciutti (Morgana), Teresa Berganza (Ruggiero)
Monica Sinclair (Bradamante), Luigi Alva (Oronte).

Today, most of Handel’s operas and oratorios have been recorded at least once, and it is not just Messiah that has been recorded several times. It is therefore difficult to think back to a time when the main opera companies ignored this great treasure trove of the repertoire, and it was left to the Handel Opera Society, and one or two other groups to exhume what many people still considered to be impossible works. This Alcina was for many years the only Handel opera available with a good standard of performance and recording. Given the research that has occurred since into contemporary performance practice, it must seem astonishing that this version stands up as well as it does. Bonynge uses a far lighter touch than was expected in those days, and we now accept that as the norm. Sutherland doesn’t really project words, but in other respects her singing is phenomenal, including the Act I aria pinched from Morgana even in Handel’s day (and which more recent performances have given back to her). The other singers were not necessarily recognised as Handel performers, but all do very well, and Berganza’s dynamic Ruggiero is superb. Many years later she returned to the part on stage at Aix-en-Provence. Mirella Freni sings the small role of Oberto.

ERATO (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1999

Conductor: William Christie
Les Arts Florissants
Renée Fleming (Alcina), Natalie Dessay (Morgana), Susan Graham (Ruggiero)
Kathleen Kuhlmann (Bradamante), Timothy Robinson (Oronte).

Christie’s performance sees major representatives of the next generation of Handel singers giving an excellent account of the opera. The recording was made at live performances, which can sometimes be an irritant when the orchestra is small and stage noise can intrude, but that is not a significant problem here. Susan Graham gives a glorious performance as Ruggiero, and the voices of Renée Fleming and Natalie Dessay contrast effectively as the sisters. Laurent Naouri is the excellent Melisso.

The Cast

Alcina
 an enchantress in love with Ruggiero
Astolfo
 Oberto's father
Bradamante
 a lady, betrothed to Ruggiero and disguised
Melisso
 tutor to Bradamante
Morgana
 Alcina's sister and Oronte's lover
Oberto
 a youth
Oronte
 commander of Alcina's forces
Ruggiero
 a knight enslaved to Alcina

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