Concentus Musicus Wien, with Nicolas Harnoncourt's successor Stefan Gottfried at the helm, is unquestionably the brightest star in Theater an der Wien’s new Alcina. This venerated early music ensemble, founded in 1953, is renowned for its unique sound, energy and impassioned dedication to music of the Baroque. The overture to Handel’s magical 1735 opera seria whirled dizzily through the strings, all wind and motion, energetically shipwrecking our protagonists in the mystical realm of the witch, Alcina. And the musical captivation did not end there. The quality of Morgana’s “Credete al mio dolore” – really a vocal/instrumental duo – was heartbreaking, not only because of Mirella Hagen’s effortless vocal lilt, but to the Baroque sound and impeccable phrasing of her orchestral counterpart. From a purely musical perspective, it was a shame that the opera, omitting all dance scenes, was reduced to a scant three-and-a-half hours.

Maris Petersen (Alcina)
© Herwig Prammer

Unfortunately, director Tatjana Gürbaca, now a native at TAW after her 2016 Capriccio and four-part, reshuffled Ring last season, seemed generally unable to see the woods for all the trees – or in this case the mountain for all the stones. There was no decipherable overarching dramatic architecture, but instead a hyperactive hodgepodge of Regietheater tropes running independently from the storyline. Incongruous hypersexualisation, unexplained Doppelgängers and Oronte literally cutting out his own plastic heart were just some of the moments we could have done without. The detailed Personenregie was as exhausting as it was incongruent, as if Gürbaca was intent on drowning out Händel’s music through meaningless motion.

Florian Köfler (Melisso)
© Herwig Prammer

Katrin Lea Tag's designs moved more perceptibly from a perpetually intoxicated wedding party –  featuring romping extras in bridesmaids’ gowns, fireworks at an otherwise quiet moment, and a swing – to a drab, rainy wasteland and black-feathered costumes. Unfortunately, the rocky, moonlike, desolate stage design dulled the sparkle of Alcina’s magical island from the beginning, making her bird-men and flowers seem unearthly and sparse. Likewise, the choice to dress Alcina (Marlis Petersen) in a puffed pink gown, mousy brown hair tied back with a single barrette gave her more the look of an overgrown, unfortunate child, not the formidable, seductive witch she could so easily portray. Although there were a few striking pictures, including a downpour of actual falling rain, the island felt more desolately bizarre than magical.

Mirella Hagen (Morgana) and Rainer Trost (Oronte)
© Herwig Prammer

Vocally, there were a number of standout moments, but in general the casting choices felt as uneven as the rocky stage. Mirella Hagen's arias as Morgana were absolutely brilliant – her "Tornami a vagheggiar" was a gift of effortless cascading coloratura – but outside of the arias her vocalisations were less centered and supported. David Hansen's Ruggiero was vocally tight in his upper register, and Florian Köfler (Melisso) lacked variety in colouring. Marlis Petersen evolved over the evening; as her character lost power she seemed to find her vocal groove. Barely supporting throughout the first act and beyond, she suddenly bloomed for a knockout “Ah! mio cor!” just in time for intermission. Rainer Trost (Oronte) and particularly Katarina Bradić (Bradamante) were the most consistently effective, both vocally and dramatically; Bradić’s burnished contralto and physique make her particularly convincing as the disguised soldier/jilted lover. The choice to cast Oberto with boy sopranos from the Florianer Sängerknaben was a nice gesture, and the Schoenberg Choir, although underused in Handel’s score, were as vocally prescient as ever.

As an opening production for the season, Theater an der Wien has not hit quite the note one might hope for. That being said, one may well argue that excellent musicianship and mediocre direction still equal a net win for the savvy opera lover.