It’s showtime at the 1960s Teatro Lirico, where, amid the drab cranes and brutalist towers of Milan, a raunchy and colourful cabaret celebrates the “island of Alcina” with prancing dancers in peacock feathers, impassively watched by dinner-jacketed men with animal masks.
Not much room for the Handel opera of 1735 there, one might think, but this is director Francesco Micheli’s attempt to recreate the spirit of the baroque in latter-day Italy. Gaudiness is the visual style, billowing smoke, moveable sets, which let us in behind the scenes to witness the goings-on around the bars and the loos, knitted together with smart choreography and flamboyant singing.
The love-chain story, set on an island ruled by the sorceress Alcina, who has turned men she has captured into animals, involves Oronte who loves Morgana, who loves Ricciardo, who loves Ruggiero, who loves Alcina. (Though hang on, Ricciardo is actually Bradamante, the abandoned lover of Ruggiero, disguised.)
Alcina is one of Handel’s most remarkable creations, undergoing a transformation from dominant, evil manipulator of her world, dressed in flashy outfits, to a crushed figure whose magic powers are destroyed, and who has to return to the everyday world in a grey suit.
The evolution of her character in a series of stunning arias is startling, and Jane Archibald brings intense focus and control to the sequence, with the searing leaps of “Ah, mio cor!”, the desperate pleas of “Ombre pallide” (perhaps a touch too rushed to be clear), and the final desolation of “Mi restano le lagrime” in which she yearns to escape from daylight below the clear waters of the sea. The music twists heartbreakingly from minor into the major key, and this ambivalent figure cannot but have a touch of our sympathy.
She is matched in virtuosity, however, both by the Ruggiero of Samantha Hankey and the Bradamante of Beth Taylor. Hankey, triumphant with added horns in “Stà nell’Ircana”, shows off a clear and sharply etched voice, while Taylor is outstanding in the roulades of “Vorrei vendicarmi”. Then there is the brilliant, pertly winning Morgana of Soraya Mafi, who has the show-stopping aria “Tornami a vagheggiar” (which some greedy Alcinas of the past have added to their part).
Here and elsewhere all the singers have carefully contrived ornamentation and added piercing high notes, which go down a storm but don’t sound spontaneous. A more natural approach is taken by Rowan Pierce as the Cherubino-like boy Oberto, a really eloquent voice, who searches for his father among the animals of the island. The actual male voices don’t really stand a chance in this company, but Alastair Miles is robustly reliable as Melisso, and Stuart Jackson’s Oronte, though scarcely ideally matched to Mafi’s Morgana, has his eloquent moments.
The choreography by Mike Ashcroft, claimed by director Micheli to be central to the piece, is effective as far as it goes, but, as so often, some of Handel’s most inventive ballet music, depicting the dreams and visions on the magic island, is omitted – though we do get a final dance sequence of celebration.
Bruno Poet’s characterful lighting creates clouds of vague atmosphere, and one vivid moment as the source of Alcina’s magic is revealed in her pink bag: a spotlit book of spells, or maybe the text of Arioso’s epic poem “Orlando furioso”, from which the opera was derived.
The accumulated power of the score is magnificently managed and driven by conductor Jonathan Cohen, with the old instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in peak-period condition, dazzlingly pungent, light and airy, with a total sense of stylistic confidence. The production may be exhaustingly busy, but it entrances the audience, and provides Glyndebourne with another triumph in its sequence of Handel productions, certainly on the level of the famous Giulio Cesare back in 2005. This is the hit of the summer opera season so far.
Until Aug 24. Tickets: 01273 815000; glyndebourne.com