Opera is often ridiculed for its twisted plotlines. Sometimes they can be unpicked quite easily, but the plot of Handel’s Alcina is truly complicated. We are on an enchanted island (in 1735, they would not have called it Love Island; today we might), ruled over by a sorceress – Alcina herself. She bewitches any man who takes her fancy, wiping his memory clean so that she has all his attention. The current victim is poor Ruggiero, whose betrothed, Bradamante, dressed as a man, sets out to free him. She succeeds, but only after three hours of gender-blurring amorous tangles.
Rather than trying to untie the narrative knots, Francesco Micheli’s new Glyndebourne production adds a few of its own. The highly mobile sets are by Edoardo Sanchi, inventively lit by Bruno Poet, and the costumes – what costumes! – are by Alessio Rosati. Appropriately enough, given the artifice of Handel’s operas, the action takes place in a theatre called Alcina’s Island. There, a variety show unfolds, an extravagant mash-up spanning Handel’s 18th-century and the 20th, mainly Italy in the 1960s but with hints of punk and the 1930s: Marie Antoinette’s ship headdress and Anita Ekberg are among a profusion of visual references.
There are lavish set pieces, including a duet conducted by phone and a troupe of dancing girls, of course, wittily choreographed by Mike Ashcroft. Not everything adds up and some of it is difficult to follow, but that’s appropriate for an opera about the disruptive nature of desire. Any Handel opera rests on the commitment of its singers. Micheli, no doubt fully supported by conductor Jonathan Cohen, secures a dedicated ensemble performance from his eight singers, most new to Glyndebourne, all prepared to trust his fecund imagination.
The women shine brightest and Jane Archibald certainly has the physical and vocal glamour for the role of Alcina. If, like several of the cast, she tends to push for emotional effect, she embodies the character’s swagger as well as her desolation when, eventually, she’s stripped of both power and glamour. As Bradamente, the instrument of her downfall, Beth Taylor displays a powerful chest register, while in the smaller role of Morgana, Alcina’s not entirely sisterly sister, Soraya Mafi copes athletically with her extortionate coloratura: she sounds as if she’s having a great time. The same could be said of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, making the most of one of Handel’s richest orchestral displays.
Micheli’s production creates its own world. Whether it’s always the right world is a matter for debate, but whatever else it may be, this is definitely a show.
Glyndebourne until August 24, glyndebourne.com