Handel's Alcina is set on an enchanted island, where the sorceress attracts her lovers, only to turn them into wild animals, or inanimate objects when she is tired of them. Only the Christian warrior Ruggiero truly wins her heart, and eventually brings her to her ruin. The story is based on the epic poem of chivalry Orlando furioso, but director Damiano Michieletto sets it in a hotel, a sort of Hotel California where the men bewitched by Alcina can check in, but never leave.

Cecilia Bartoli (Alcina) and Angelika Nieder (Old Alcina)
© Salzburg Festival | Matthias Horn

Michieletto’s focus is the sorceress. He depicts her as a vulnerable woman, scared of growing old and being left alone, who creates a whole world to arrest the passing of time with her magic. A large glass wall divides the scene, the tortured, captive men suffering behind it, but it functions also as a mirror, where the characters see their reflection and Alcina sees the image of herself as an old, dishevelled woman. The production was engaging, with beautiful, disconcerting images, and intelligent use of dancers. The stage was very busy, but in a way that helped tell – and not distract from – the story. There is no happy ending in Michieletto’s Alcina: she dies a terrifying death, turning into the old hag who haunted her;.Ruggiero keeps sighing and longing for her, unable to leave her body. The mirror is shattered, but nobody is the wiser.

The musical production was excellent; the ensemble Les Musiciens du Prince, conducted by Gianluca Capuano, contributed significantly to the success of the performance, with a passionate, colourful and detailed reading of the score, subtly enhancing the mood of each character, with the finest exploration of each ornamentation. A special mention goes to the horn section (Erwin Wieringa and Emmanuel Frankenberg) which, in Ruggiero’s last aria, played the treacherous natural instruments with awe-inspiring precision and intonation.

Alastair Miles (Melisso), Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero) and Kristina Hammarström (Bradamante)
© Salzburg Festival | Matthias Horn

Cecilia Bartoli was a mesmerizing Alcina. Her supple, velvety mezzo rose to soprano heights with no effort, her high notes full and beautiful. The queen and sorceress was a vulnerable, insecure woman, begging for reassurance from her beloved Ruggiero. At the same time, her complete lack of compassion was almost second nature: there was no sadism in her cruelty, just a matter of fact. Her cruel nature was underlined by one of the least successful ideas of the director: a young Alcina double, a little girl, who appeared wielding an axe from time to time. Bartoli was fierce and terrifying in her outbursts of vengeance, but it was the aria “Ah, mio cor” which turned out to be the absolute highlight of the evening, bringing many to tears. Her immense breath control, the impossible pianissimo, led the audience on a journey through this abandoned woman’s soul which made us forget all her treachery.

Sandrine Piau, herself an acclaimed Alcina, was a wonderful Morgana, Alcina’s sister. Her very high and sparkling soprano was perfect for the younger witch, which was described as a somewhat one-dimensional sexy, manipulative, ultimately silly girl. Piau’s performance was excellent, she made the most of the many embarrassing situations the director put her in, some more relevant to the story than others.

Cecilia Bartoli (Alcina), dancers and chorus
© Salzburg Festival | Matthias Horn

Ruggiero was countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who did not seem on perfect form; his sweet, high voice took some acidic overtones in the top register, and his legato didn’t seem always on point. In particular “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto”, one of his signature arias, did not seem as excellent as on other occasions. Overall, his performance was nevertheless very enjoyable, and he gave a heartfelt interpretation of the confused, bewitched knight.

Ruggiero’s betrothed, Bradamante, who comes to Alcina’s island in disguise in order to rescue him, was sung by Kristina Hammarström. Her deep, burnished mezzo became the voice of reason in a world gone mad. She had minor problems in the passaggio but displayed a masterful control of the coloratura and the style, her furore arias exciting and taken at breakneck speed. Christopher Strehl sang Oronte with a high, pleasant tenor, but, unfortunately, his coloratura didn’t seem perfectly on point; Melisso was Alastair Miles, whose deep bass tended, occasionally, to sound a bit harsh and lack elegance, though his delivery of “Pensa a chi geme” was moving.

Sheen Park (Oberto) and dancers
© Salzburg Festival | Matthias Horn

The character of Oberto, a child whose father was turned into a tree by Alcina and wanders around desperately looking for him, was written for a boy soprano; the character is often cut, or sometimes sung by a woman soprano. The conductor and the director made a bold choice by casting an actual boy soprano (he looked about 10) in the part: Sheen Park, from the Vienna Boys Choir, performed with professionalism and mastery, showing complete confidence in his own means, both from a musical and a theatrical point of view. He won the hearts of the whole audience.