“I miss the magic.” That’s a common enough cry after any dull opera performance but here it’s a literal issue. Alcina, the best known of Handel’s supernatural operas, is a gift for imaginative directors worth their salt but Tim Albery’s new production for Opera North is so flat it feels interminable, even though (or perhaps partly because) almost an hour of music has been cut from the score.

Mari Askvik (Bradamante) and Máire Flavin (Alcina)
© James Glossop

After a week of superlative Baroque opera elsewhere, advance goodwill towards the company was in plentiful supply. The Royal Opera’s Theodora and Irish National Opera’s Bajazet are delighting Covent Garden audiences and Opera North’s pool of proven talent promised to make it a hat-trick with the tale of Alcina, a witch who lures suitors to her island palace. Under her spell, the young hero Ruggiero spurns his true love, Bradamante. Instead, it’s Alcina’s sister and fellow enchantress Morgana who falls for Bradamante (now disguised as a man) even though she herself is already betrothed to Oronte, Alcina’s loyal lieutenant.

The cuts are a problem. Characters lurch between moods without rhyme or reason as logical progression is jettisoned. The truncated score feels like a suite of hits rather than a drama, and the character of Oberto, a boy in search of his missing father, is dispensed with altogether.

Fflur Wyn (Morgana) and Nick Pritchard (Oronte)
© James Glossop

Alcina also disappoints as a showcase for sustainable opera, despite that being Opera North’s pledge for this production. Costumes and accessories are re-treads from other productions and they look it. Is that Tosca under Alcina's wig? The eponymous sorceress appears regal yet oddly out of place in a staging without enchantment. As for the chairs we find scattered across the sandy shores, they’d be more at home in an open-plan office than this no-man's-land. Still, they give our heroine something to throw around the stage when she gets cross.

I’d love to think that Opera North packed video designer Ian William Galloway on a plane to the South Pacific and then chartered a helicopter to enable him to capture his roving images of sandy beaches and lush, palm-laden woodland… but, however he may have achieved his work, it seems wilful of Albery and designer Hannah Clark to then desaturate all his images and added to the visual drear by keeping their idyllic world monochrome.

Patrick Terry (Ruggiero), Máire Flavin (Alcina), Fflur Wyn (Morgana) and Mari Askvik (Bradamante)
© James Glossop

Handel's late opera can be staged on its own terms with spectacle and illusion or else, as here, it can be mined for metaphor. However, if the latter path is taken it needs to supply conviction, not confusion. As it was, the show held focus thanks to impeccable musical direction by Laurence Cummings together with a number of solid vocal performances. Tenor Nick Pritchard was the pick of these, his Oronte a masterclass in characterisation and death-defying breath control. He had the advantage of individuality, too, since every other singer around him sang alto or higher – even Ruggiero’s former tutor Melisso, a comprimario figure who was unaccountably gender-bent into Melissa and thus became a mezzo (Claire Pascoe) instead of a bass.

Soprano Fflur Wyn sang a bell-like Morgana, modern in timbre but attractively sustained across the evening. Countertenor Patrick Terry, who probably had more notes to sing than anyone else, strengthened considerably after a tentative start and became a musically precise if dramatically over-refined Ruggiero. His smooth legato had a transcendent beauty and his complicated relationship with Bradamente (the outstanding Norwegian mezzo-soprano Mari Askvik, of whom I hope we’ll hear a great deal more henceforth) was well delineated.

Máire Flavin (Alcina)
© James Glossop

Máire Flavin was an imperious Alcina but in directing her Albery, for all his depth of experience, seemed content to make her an equivocal figure rather than the whirlwind of supernatural and all too human emotional extremes that her music demands. The Irish soprano's delivery of “Mi restano le lagrime” traded plangency in favour of a forthright delivery that left her as an enigma that was never resolved.