George Frideric Handel composed Alcina, his colourful opera seria, for his first season at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in London for its 1735 première. Based on an anonymous adaptation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the opera bursts with conflicts between the real and unreal, between comedy and tragedy, but also points to mistaken identities on an enchanted island that, of itself, invites imaginative staging.

Bryony Dwyer (Morgana) and Nicole Heaston (Alcina) © Priska Ketterer
Bryony Dwyer (Morgana) and Nicole Heaston (Alcina)
© Priska Ketterer

In Act 1 of Basel’s colourful Lydia Steier production, Alcina’s magical kingdom has the attributes of a big beach party. Hitherto, the sorceress Alcina had lured countless fellows to her island kingdom to use as male concubines for her own amusement. Yet once she tired of one or the other, she turned each into a peculiar plant-animal mutation. These odd cross-creatures languish around the stage at the beginning of the opera, serving more or less as props themselves. Further, massive “rocks” are simply hollow when seen from behind – giving an unsettling sense of uncertainty, much like the those that figure at this opera’s core: Who’s in love with whom? Whose affections can we validate? Whose real intentions remain hidden?

In the story, the abandoned Bradamante arrives at a mysterious island in search of her fiancée Ruggiero, but comes disguised as her brother, Riccardo, along with an older companion and former tutor, Melisso. In this staging, the two travel to the island’s shores in a simple boat among wave-shaped stage flats that shift back and forth as awkwardly as those in an Elizabethan spectacle. Once on shore, however, and to her great dismay, Bradamante finds her lover in a tryst with the island’s Sorceress-in-Residence − the powerful Alcina − who is devoted to her lover enough to fight with all she has to win his affections. And sung by the celebrated American soprano Nicole Heaston with such pointed and bombastic energy, this Alcina makes a convincing case for not messing with those in charge.

Alice Borciani (Oberto) © Priska Ketterer
Alice Borciani (Oberto)
© Priska Ketterer

Such enchantment, however, translates seamlessly into Gianluca Falaschi’s fabulous costumes. His are elaborate feathered headdresses for the island creatures − half bird, half man − while Alcina is dressed in the shimmering sea-green and scales of a hefty ocean catch, and her lascivious younger sister Morgana − the superb Bryony Dwyer − is a mermaid. In shades of blue and sea-green, Morgana even carries her tail around on a cord in the way one might hold a designer handbag. Contrived as it was, the detail fit her character, and she emerged as loveable as her sister Alcina did tragic.

Nicole Heaston (Alcina), Bryony Dwyer (Morgana) and Katarina Bradić (Bradamante) © Priska Ketterer
Nicole Heaston (Alcina), Bryony Dwyer (Morgana) and Katarina Bradić (Bradamante)
© Priska Ketterer

Act 2 switches the action to a kind of 1950s secretarial pool in an open office setting. Some dozen desks have typists working furiously to please their bosses, who are, in fact, none other than the driven Ruggiero (Valer Sabadus) and his true-to-life counterpart, Bradamante, (Katarina Bradić). Blissfully reunited in their love, they serve as the CEO and secretary of “the firm”. Alcina has been defeated; Morgana hovers timidly in the background, and sadly shows herself a figure out of sorts and confused by this urban context. The office staging may have been clever, but the bustle of commerce and metaphor for redemption through regular work was a bit exaggerated. Further, the players seemed to move erratically in unscripted actions, the revolving stage circling repeatedly by way of beefing up the frenzy.

Valer Sabadus (Ruggiero) and Nicole Heaston (Alcina) © Priska Ketterer
Valer Sabadus (Ruggiero) and Nicole Heaston (Alcina)
© Priska Ketterer

The cast, on the other hand, delivered commendable performances. I was particularly impressed by Nathan Haller’s Oronte − Morgana’s cast-aside lover – whose inspired, clear tenor was one of the evening’s strongest and most consistent vocal performances. As he warned of Alcina’s dangerous antics, his paced and perfectly coloured "Semplicetto! A donna credi?" was beautifully woven into Handel’s luminous score. As Oberto, the young boy who was looking on the island to find his missing father, Alice Borciani sang angelically, but was compromised by her schoolboy shorts and a slap-on wig that were trite enough to be a wardrobe malfunction. By contrast, at the very end of Act 1, Alcina’s "Tornami a vagheggiar” aria was as effervescent and bubbly as to make one want to dance. And, while Ruggiero, countertenor Vilar Sabadus sang somewhat unevenly in a bit of an inauspicious start, his lyrical “Verdi prati “− realising that everything on the island is an illusion − was a faultless and inspired rendition.

The La Cetra Barockorchester Basel had begun their prologue onstage, but as the opera began, sank on their platform down into the pit. From there, Handel’s delightful music under conductor Andrea Marcon’s baton was uplifting anyway. And all told, they gave the very best of a lively and robust Handel, dancing shoes or none.