The week in classical: Alcina; The Blue Woman

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Sorcery’s dodgy magic rarely casts a spell on a modern, sceptical audience, so staging Handel’s witchcraft opera Alcina (1735) can be a serious challenge. Glyndebourne’s new production offers a solution: move the piece away from a mysterious, enchanted island to another place of equal enchantment – the theatre; in particular, a 1960s Italian revue, where glamour, intrigue and simmering sexiness are always top of the bill.

Any decent cabaret has to have spectacle, wit, charm, fabulous music and, of course, good singing, and this production hits most of those targets, even if the baffling plot remains stubbornly opaque. Francesco Micheli, making his directorial debut at Glyndebourne, casts Alcina the sorceress as a sequined femme fatale, draped in feather boas and furs, attended by a troupe of leggy showgirls. On Handel’s fantasy island she turns her lovers into solid stone or wild animals. Here at the Teatro Lirico, she merely condemns them to sit and watch the show.

Some will find this all too superficial, but there’s no denying it’s one hell of a show. The great set-piece arias that make this opera a supreme example of the baroque are given full glitzy treatment from an exotic peacock-tail stage, complete with walk-down steps. It’s fun, sassy and ever so slightly bonkers, while only just managing to maintain the psychological subtleties of Handel’s characterisation, in particular the slow disintegration of Alcina, as her magical powers slip slowly from her grasp.

Opera is cruel to its heroines. Think of Carmen, Lulu, Gilda, Tosca and Butterfly

Making an impressive Glyndebourne debut as Alcina is the Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, who glistens and gleams through the vast emotional range of the role, particularly outstanding in her lament Ah! mio cor. Another debut – long overdue – is made by the British soprano Soraya Mafi, whose dazzlingly bright and agile coloratura excited audiences across Britain for several seasons before Covid. She steals the show as Alcina’s scheming sister Morgana: flirtatious, vindictive and deliciously flighty. Her entrance in a mermaid suit is outrageous; her vivacious account of the aria Tornami a vagheggiar simply a showstopper.

She falls for “Ricciardo”, actually Bradamante disguised as her brother, who arrives determined to rescue her partner, Ruggiero, who has come under showgirl Alcina’s spell. Scottish mezzo Beth Taylor, as Bradamante, is another Glyndebourne debutante and impresses with her incisive technique, while the delightful soprano Rowan Pierce has great fun with the role of the little boy Oberto.

The showstopping Soraya Mafi as Morgana with Stuart Jackson as Oronte) in Alcina.
The showstopping Soraya Mafi as Morgana with Stuart Jackson as Oronte in Alcina. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The American mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey sings Ruggiero, the central role Handel assigned to the castrato Carestini, a sexual ambiguity that is carried through into Micheli’s interpretation, adding a further twist to the already headspinning plot. She sings with immense style, even if the line is sometimes too low for her range. Her farewell to the island, Verdi prati, was heart-rending.

The outlandish costumes are by Alessio Rosati. Edoardi Sanchi’s design switches neatly from stage to dressing room to backstage, beautifully lit by Bruno Poet. Mike Ashcroft adds some truly enjoyable choreography, much enlivened by the spirited playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the assured direction of Jonathan Cohen. Go. You’ll be none the wiser about the plot, but that’s showbusiness.

Opera is cruel to its heroines. Think of Carmen, Lulu, Gilda, Tosca and Butterfly. Used and abused, they meet violent ends. But the world has changed since those characters were created. Aiming to start redressing the balance is a new experimental piece, The Blue Woman, the result of a collaboration between the composer Laura Bowler, librettist Laura Lomas, director Katie Mitchell, conductor Jamie Man, designer Lizzie Clachan and video editor Grant Gee.

It deals unflinchingly with the ruinous psychological aftermath of rape in a part-performance, part-film format. Four singers (Elaine Mitchener, Lucy Schaufer, Gweneth Ann Rand and Rosie Middleton) sit on a bare stage, accompanied by four cellists (Louise McMonagle, Su-a Lee, Tamaki Sugimoto and Clare O’Connell). Above them runs a beautifully shot film, in which actor Eve Ponsonby personifies all women who search obsessively for the person they once were before they were raped.

Bowler’s score is often spare and bleak, as you might expect, but also surprisingly rich in texture, drawing some startling sonic effects when combining four voices, four cellos, percussion and electronics. Lomas’s libretto is powerfully poetic, with the singers propelling her words out into the auditorium like shards of glass in an hour of calmly contained rage.

Eve Ponsonby with the singers and cellists in The Blue Woman.
‘An hour of calmly controlled rage’: Eve Ponsonby (top) with the singers and cellists of The Blue Woman. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

We can argue whether this totally static piece is really an opera, but that hardly matters. It’s a statement, a placing on record, an exploration of human experience that is too often avoided because it’s too painful to contemplate. Music has the power to take us out of this world, but The Blue Woman shows it can also challenge us to stare hard at its reality – and not look away.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Blue Woman

  • Alcina is at Glyndebourne, East Sussex, until 24 August

  • The Blue Woman is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 11 July