Last Wednesday saw the first night of Alcina, the second part of the two-fold revival of Handel productions that Pierre Audi originally conceived for the Drottningholm Palace Theatre in Stockholm. As in Tamerlano the night before, the staging was all subtlety and elegance. Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset, played exquisitely. But it is mainly the superlative cast, lead by a bewitching Sandrine Piau, that unleashed high emotions.

Sandrine Piau (Alcina) © La Monnaie de Munt
Sandrine Piau (Alcina)
© La Monnaie de Munt

The sets of Alcina (again by Patrick Kinmorth) mirror those of Tamerlano. This time, instead of two rows of columns, the stage is framed by walls of luxuriant foliage, as in a classical garden’s maze. When Ruggiero is delivered from Alcina’s spell in Act II, the sets are, as it were, turned around so that the public gets a view from backstage – and discovers that the exuberant garden was only artificial theatre props. Finally in Act III, as Alcina’s magical world collapses, one is left with the same empty shell of a theatre as in Tamerlano.

In this uncluttered staging, without any props, except for a single chair, and with the horizontal lighting that enhances all gestures and facial expressions, every singer on stage is totally exposed. There is little that distracts the audience from their performances in those long, sometimes very long, da capo arias. The admirably intricate direction does of course go some way in conveying the emotion but really, most has to come from the singing... and the singing on Wednesday night was just phenomenal.

The cast was excellent from the main roles to the smallest ones. Giovanni Furlanetto’s Melisso displayed both authority and warmth when reminding Ruggiero his duty to his wife. Chloé Briot’s youthful soprano was very convincing in portraying the boy Oberto. Daniel Behle’s flexible tenor is so appealing that, for once, one actually feels for Oronte’s fate. Angélique Noldus managed to portray a Bradamante who was both unwavering and touching.

Giovanni Furlanetto (Melisso) and Angélique Noldus (Bradamante) © La Monnaie de Munt
Giovanni Furlanetto (Melisso) and Angélique Noldus (Bradamante)
© La Monnaie de Munt

Sabina Puértolas’ timbre is fleshier than most of the light sopranos one often hears as Morgana. Her coloratura might not reach stratospheric spheres but her choice of ornamentation in “Tormani a vagheggiar” was delightful. And one would have to have a heart of stone not to be disarmed by her “Credete al mio dolore”. Maite Beaumont was a very engaging boyish Ruggiero, tenderly lyrical in “Verdi prati” and displaying expert vocal fireworks in “Sta nell’incarna”.

Finally, there was Sandrine Piau. The French soprano, who sang Morgana at the Paris opera only last year, has clearly outgrown the role of the younger sister. She gave an unforgettable performance as Alcina. Technically, nothing seemed to stop her, not even the fiendishly difficult chromatics in “Ombre pallide” which left the public stunned. Her voice might not have the natural opulence of some of her famous predecessors, but she wins by portraying a creature of real flesh and blood: enamoured, desperate, revengeful, cruel.

Sandrine Piau (Alcina) and Maite Beaumont (Ruggiero) © La Monnaie de Munt
Sandrine Piau (Alcina) and Maite Beaumont (Ruggiero)
© La Monnaie de Munt

The turning point in the opera’s storyline is Alcina’s aria “Ah! mio cor!” when the sorceress realizes Ruggiero is leaving her. The way Ms Piau interpreted it, charging each stanza with renewed emotion, was a thing of utter beauty. One could hear and see Alcina slowly spirals into ever deeper despair. As she sang the last notes of this aria, I swear I heard myself, and people around me , catch our breath in unison. The loud ovation that followed lasted several minutes.