The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Longborough on Saturday 30 July.
In this Shakespeare anniversary year, what a pity that Handel never wrote any Shakespeare-inspired operas! Perhaps, in staging Alcina, Longborough was trying to make up for that. After all: a tale of lovers trapped on a mysterious island ruled by a powerful magician, haunted by a sense of transformation and loss? Mix in a bit of baroque gender-swapping and Alcina isn’t so very far from The Tempest.
Certainly, it would explain why director Jenny Miller had the musicians of the orchestra spilling up onto the stage, barefoot and antler-clad like the sorcereress Alcina’s victims (she likes to transform discarded lovers into wildlife). And why at moments of crisis the characters stepped in amongst the players, seeming to direct their pleas to the spirit of the music itself: the real enchantment here being Handel’s “sounds and sweet airs”. Faye Bradley’s abstract sets certainly created an air of an alternative reality: occult-looking ox skulls hung on poles, a glowing orange disc represented Alcina’s island, and a blue moon glowered down. Dan Saggars’s lighting was simple but effective in tracing the slow fading of the illusion.
And under Miller’s direction, this was a reality peopled with lively, believable individuals: no mean feat when you’re dealing with humans transformed into lions and boys playing girls while girls pretend to be boys. A youthful but highly experienced cast went at it with total conviction. Lucy Hall, as the Ariel-like Morgana, was exuberantly, sensuously physical, while Anna Harvey made a poised and noble Bradamante. At the start, she changed into her vaguely Edwardian men’s garb on stage – typical of Miller’s imaginative approach to clarifying a far from simple plot.
And typical, too, was the fact that if Julia Sitkovetsky, as Alcina, didn’t have the most lustrous voice on stage – that belonged to her love-slave Ruggiero, sung with glowing expression by Hanna-Liisa Kirchin – the piercing fragility of her top register made her both otherworldly and strangely touching as she lamented her lost love and fading powers. Kirchin has a compelling stage presence, and made a wonderful counterpart to Rosie Lomas’s bell-like purity as the boy Oberto.
With earthy, unfussy playing from the period-instrument orchestra under Jeremy Silver (plus a delightfully inventive continuo group), it all came together. No stand-and-deliver baroque tedium here: this Alcina creates a living, breathing fantasy world – and casts a spell to which it’s a pleasure to surrender.