In 1734 Handel and his manager Heidegger lost the lease on the King’s Theatre in London, ending that rich period in British opera known as the Royal Academy of Music. Handel’s rivals took over the theatre, and most of his star artists. When John Rich offered Handel the use of his new theatre at Covent Garden twice a week, the stakes were very high.

Handel answered his rivals with a magnificent season in 1735-6, including two revivals, a pastiche opera with hit arias from earlier successes, and two wonderful new operas: Ariodante and Alcina, as well as three oratorios. This achievement compares to peaks he had reached a decade earlier at the King’s Theatre, with Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda and Tamerlano; arguably these two seasons were the most remarkable ever created in Britain. Alcina was a particular success, sustaining 18 performances in that season.

Georg Friedrich Handel
© Public Domain

Though inspired by a story from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, Handel’s libretto (based on the text of an opera produced in Rome a few years earlier) is a very free adaptation. The sorceress Alcina, who shares centre stage with her mortal lover Ruggiero, is a deeply drawn character, taking the simple story in new directions. Her splendid arias, a reward to the faithful soprano Anna Strada del Po, surprise and enthral the listener just as she enslaves her lovers. Beside her, the ardent lover and errant husband Ruggiero, written for Carestini, a leading castrato (who also created the role of Ariodante), can at first seem passive; indeed, the singer famously sent back to Handel one deceptively simple aria, the nostalgic ‘Verdi prati’, but Handel ordered him to sing it as written. His role is full of elegant, subtle touches and psychological complexities, crowned by the brilliance of his Act 3 aria with horns, ‘Sta nell’Ircana.’

The other characters are not stinted wonderful music: even the bass Gustavus Waltz, who seems to have doubled as Handel’s cook, gets a spacious, stirring aria. Alcina’s sister Morgana (first played by Cecilia Young) has a terrific expression of joy at the end of Act 1, the celebrated show-stopper ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, as well as a pair of heartfelt arias with violin and cello obbligato; her rejected suitor Oronte, originally sung by the young British tenor John Beard, has three light arias of great charm, utterly distinct in style. The fascinating part of the rejected wife Bradamante has distinctive music, too, low lying and solid but with brilliant coloratura display.

Like Teseo, Alcina has at its heart an enchantress who loves a mortal and who, rejected, exacts lonely, futile revenge. Alcina is one of Handel’s most wonderful creations: truly seductive, she invokes in every listener to pity and terror. Her love for Ruggiero is devouring, at least until his long-lost wife reappears. The battle for the heart and soul of Ruggiero is fought between sensuality and duty, between the taste of the present and the insistent sound of memory. No other opera is such an attractive – and clinical – examination of love and illusion.

These notes were kindly contributed by English Touring Opera, whose production of Alcina is set at the island court of a Stuart beauty, peopled by the puritans she has detained, and loved. The detailed period costumes are drawn from a rich palette of colour and texture, reflecting the opera’s heady sensuality. For reasons of length, they have excised the charming boy soprano role of Oberto (a youth who is looking for his father), which Handel had added to his opera only after its completion in order to make use of the talents of young William Savage.The production opens in London at the Britten Theatre (Royal College of Music) on Friday 23rd October 2009, before touring nationally through November.