Why do we attend the theatre? As an escape from the realities of everyday life or as a reflection of them? Or are you starstruck? In Glyndebourne’s first production of Handel’s Alcina, corporate businessman Ruggiero is hooked by the star of the Teatro Lirico, a showgirl in the revue L’isola d’Alcina. Director Francesco Micheli sees the enchantress as a 60s film star – Glyndebourne’s voluptuous programme book features a photo of Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s La dolce vita – with the theatre her palace. Alcina’s rejected lovers are not turned to stone or wild beasts, but are masked hangers-on, desperate for a glance or an autograph. 

Samantha Hankey (Ruggiero) and dancers
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Tristram Kenton

Why are Astolfo, Melisso and Ruggiero hell-bent on closing Alcina’s theatre down? During Handel’s perky sinfonia, there’s an awful lot to take in. A building site features, followed by a business meeting where a series of graphs are projected. My reading was that the firm “Chiaromonte” wanted to raze the theatre to the ground to enable the construction of their new skyscraper, but other interpretations are doubtless available. Astolfo is the first to become entranced, so his teenage son, Oberto, heads off to find him. Ruggiero, smitten by the photo of Alcina on his smartphone, is the latest to head into her enchanted realm and fall under her spell, but he is soon followed by his abandoned fiancée, Bradamante, disguised as her brother, to rescue him, aided by his tutor, Melisso. (Pay attention at the back, there will be questions later.)

Jane Archibald (Alcina)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Tristram Kenton

Most of the action takes place in Edoardo Sanchi’s theatrical sets, wonderfully lit by Bruno Poet. We’re at the cabaret show and a bar as well as backstage dressing rooms, where a looming “Vietato fumare” warning of course encourages characters to light up. Micheli’s Fellini fantasy spurs Alessio Rosati to create extravagant costumes: Alcina, cast adrift by the one conquest she actually loves, wears a gown where cherubs drown in swirling waves, a ship atop her towering wig; her sister Morgana is first seen on high in scarlet scales as a mermaid; burlesque dancers (choreography Mike Ashcroft) strut peacock feathers and flash Argentine tango ganchos during Morgana’s “Tornami a vagheggiar”. At one point, a racy headline in The Sun trumpets “Ruggiero dumps wife”. It’s Love Island meets Strictly

Soraya Mafi (Morgana)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Tristram Kenton

Camp cabaret makes for a visually striking show, but in demoting Alcina from island sorceress to showgirl whose appeal is waning, Micheli lowers the stakes and the tragedy often feels shallow as a result. “Ah! mio cor!”, Alcina’s griefstricken aria when she discovers Ruggiero has betrayed her, is delivered into her dressing room mirror before she forces herself to get back on-stage… on with the motley. When Ruggiero, wearing armour over his pyjamas, “defeats” her forces and the theatre shuts down, Alcina and her troupe clear their dressing rooms and pack their suitcases. Sad, yes, but tragic? 

Micheli then throws in a twist at the end. Rather than destroying the source of Alcina’s magic, he has Ruggiero open her vanity case, a Pandora’s box here whose contents – a copy of Orlando furioso, Handel’s source material – enrapture the corporate suits. They each discover their inner stage animal, all appearing in a white-suited finale, Ruggiero costumed identically to Alcina. There’s no business like show business. 

The cast of Alcina
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Tristram Kenton

Apart from a few wild horn notes in Ruggiero’s swaggering “Sta nell'Ircana pietrosa tana”, the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment under Jonathan Cohen rarely put a foot wrong. There was a particularly lovely cello obbligato in Morgana’s “Credete al mio dolore”. 

Vocal performances were mixed. Star billing needs to go to Soraya Mafi whose Morgana was scintillating, “Tornami a vagheggiar” a highlight, full of sparkling ornamentation and some nifty paso doble steps. Samantha Hankey, who won the inaugural Glyndebourne Cup in 2018, made an accomplished house debut as Ruggiero. Her light mezzo charmed in the touching simplicity of “Verdi prati”. Once she settled, Jane Archibald sang a fine Alcina, unafraid to sacrifice beauty of tone for dramatic effect when required, but with athletic embellishments. Rowan Pierce was bright-toned as the spunky Oberto. 

Soraya Mafi (Morgana) and Stuart Jackson (Oronte)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Tristram Kenton

As Bradamante, Beth Taylor’s mezzo – darker than Hankey’s – felt uneven across its registers, although there were impressive moments. Alastair Miles snarled and wobbled unconvincingly through his runs as Melisso. I always enjoy Stuart Jackson’s incisive tenor, here as Oronte, Alcina’s general (general manager?) who is spurned by Morgana, but he needs directors who don’t make him play every character as a caricature. He’s better than that. 

And so is Alcina. Micheli undersells Handel in this Glyndebourne debut, but if you go to the theatre for escapism it certainly scores high on froth.