Alcina is one of Handel’s three most popular and oft-performed operas, and has come to us in a variety of production guises – sumptuous more or less authentic Baroque style, modern tropical island resort, interior up-market hotel setting – some of which work and some of which don’t, but the really essential thing is a cast of better than good singer-actors, which in Karlsruhe we had in abundance. The mise en scène on this occasion was abstract-stylised with operaland costuming, as good as any and not getting in the way of the story. Alcina appeared in a gold trimmed nightie with peignoir affair, and donned a heavier black and gold cloak when being really scary. Ruggiero had a matching flowing cloak over harem pants, but appeared in a military tunic when he reverted to his true self and got serious about turning on his erstwhile benefactress.

Lauren Fagan (Alcina) © Felix Grünschloß
Lauren Fagan (Alcina)
© Felix Grünschloß

Under the direction of James Darrah, the narrative was clear and the characters well differentiated. As with certain productions of recent years, psychology was more apparent than magic. Six dancers were deployed, although not all the dance music was performed. No arias were omitted (apart from “Bramo di trionfar”, which was a later interpolation anyway) but, somewhat curiously, the order of “Sta nell’Ircana” and “All’alma fedele” was reversed.

The curtain itself comprised a white layered textile, sloping down jaggedly from left to right, recalling a Mediterranean island cliff (think Santorini). The set comprised a series of cords from ceiling to floor on the one side, so that characters appeared to be approaching or receding through a forest and, on the other, a scrim which featured projections, such as a beach scene with waves, blurry close-ups of the principals, moving beasts and so on. A kind of black flat appeared driving in from the back of the stage with sides which appeared to represent struggling figures. At the climax, this was torn apart to reveal – not a pearl, or an urn, or an item of magic decoration – a film projector, which showed Alcina disintegrating fast into old age, or perhaps her true self à la Dorian Gray. The characters were moved efficiently round the stage, all showing some dancing skill, and often coalescing into attractive tableaux.

Lauren Fagan (Alcina) and David Hansen (Ruggiero) © Felix Grünschloß
Lauren Fagan (Alcina) and David Hansen (Ruggiero)
© Felix Grünschloß

The Deutsche Händel-Solisten was on the occasion conducted by Andreas Spering in a lovely lyrical reading but with oomph when it counted. The beautiful cello obbligato for “Credete al mio dolore” was played by Jonathan Pesek. The Händel-Festspiel Chor made the most of their brief contributions.

Unusually for Europe, the two main roles were sung by Australians, up-and-coming soprano Lauren Fagan and the more established countertenor, David Hansen. Fagan was a convincing sorceress from the very start, with a strong rich soprano, inducing sympathy in “Ombre pallide” as her shades desert her, spitting venom in the trio “Non è amor” and finally collapsing as all conspire to defeat her. She was well matched by Hansen, who has a full, uncovered sound and projects fine golden tone, if occasionally teetering on the edge of shrillness; but his “Sta nell’Ircana” was rousingly sung with some spectacular high notes in the da capo, with a final descent into chest for the last note.

Lauren Fagan (Alcina) and David Hansen (Ruggiero) © Felix Grünschloß
Lauren Fagan (Alcina) and David Hansen (Ruggiero)
© Felix Grünschloß

Bradamante, who can be seen as the moral core of the work – refusing to leave until all the spells are broken and the imprisoned souls released – was well sung by Benedetta Mazzucato with rich even tone, although her “All’alma fedele” should have been a bit more triumphal – at this point, she knows she has really won the day. Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk (Morgana) is a lighter toned soprano with appropriate flexibility; she scored with “Tornami a vagheggiar” apart from a slight slip in intonation , but her “Credete al mio dolore” was well-nigh perfect. The character here seemed to share some of Alcina’s powers for a change, knocking people over with a gesture.

Soprano Alice Duport-Percier was a particularly fetching Oberto, being the very image of a frightened young boy and singing with pure androgynous tone. In "Tra speme e timore”, she was very moving indeed, but in the da capo the boy suddenly toughens up and produces a knife promising trouble for Alcina later, manifested in a whip-like “Barbara!”. Melisso was well sung by bass Daniel Miroslaw, but Samuel Boden in the tenor role of Oronte seemed somewhat underpowered – the only weak link, really.

This production and performance were very well received by the Handel Festival audience, provoking, as for Serse but better deserved, a standing ovation.

****1