This revival of Christof Loy's 2014 production of Alcina launched the New Year at Oper Zürich in magnificent fashion. Joining Cecilia Bartoli, the eponymous sorceress, and many from the original cast, is Philippe Jaroussky as Ruggiero. Loy's production of Handel's opera employs, as many others do, a play-within-a play framework. Alcina's impulse to create a world in which beauty and love are sustained through magic invites staging solutions that delineate the contrasting reality. In this instance, the dramatic action takes place within a Baroque theatre and its adjacent spaces. As some might recognize, this theatre-within-a-theatre generously alludes to that at the Drottningholm Palace near Stockholm, a rare eighteenth-century stage still with functional machinery. The opening curtain (designs by Johannes Leiacker) of Loy's production suggests, however, we are past the days of royal entertainment. The curtain's cloud surrounded by a tapestry of crowns does not feature an image of a patron, as it does at Drottningholm. As we soon learn, it is Alcina herself who commands, or rather clings to, this historical realm of illusion-making, whose treasures and imperfections come to the foreground in refreshingly effective ways.

<i>Alcina</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Alcina
© Monika Rittershaus

It is a long evening, with the available material trimmed only of its minor ballet numbers and Oberto's tangential role. Yet Loy profiles a set of six male dancers in full-hipped skirts early in the Overture, bringing the Baroque stage and music to life with a sense of playfulness, with Giovannini Antonini ably leading the Orchestra La Scintilla Zürich. Bradamante (disguised as Ricciardo as she searches for her beloved Ruggiero) and her companion Melisso wander searchingly amidst the dancers in modern business suits. The stage's underbelly, with its ropes and unglamorous wooden machinery, is already partially exposed, and is where Alcina's sister Morgana encounters "Ricciardo" and is all-too-instantly smitten.

Cecilia Bartoli (Alcina) © Monika Rittershaus
Cecilia Bartoli (Alcina)
© Monika Rittershaus

In the theatrical world above, Alcina performs a lead role in a silly scenario, with Ruggiero appearing a gullible fop. The raised stage keeps Bartoli vocally remote from the audience, but she makes a second entrance when she descends below, dressed tellingly as the Queen of the Night for "Sì son quella, non più bella", the appeal of a woman past her prime and somewhat desperate. Here Bartoli shared fully her fluid command of a spectrum of colours and dynamics. As with Mozart's Queen, though, we wonder how genuine or manipulative she is. Jaroussky's vocal talents remained concealed in Act I as he gave himself fully to the characterization of being duped and looking ridiculous (rather than projecting a state of sublime enchantment). Already in Act I, Julia Fuchs shone as an animated, luminous Morgana, as did Fabio Trümpy with his lusciously flexible Oronte and Varduhi Abrahamyan's resonant, caramel Bradamante/Ricciardo.

Alcina gains a double in the theatrical underworld in the form of an aging female cupid figure (acted superbly by Barbara Goodman). Sleeping extras partly costumed as animals suggest remnants from a performance of Zauberflöte as much as Alcina's former lovers, transformed. Trap machinery is used for stage exits, with characters raised up to enter the stage level above, much like opera-loving monarch Louis XIV dressed as the sun-king in Gérard Corbiau's film Le roi danse

Julie Fuchs (Morgana) and Cecilia Bartoli (Alcina) © Monika Rittershaus
Julie Fuchs (Morgana) and Cecilia Bartoli (Alcina)
© Monika Rittershaus

Act II takes place in replicas of Drottningholm's dressing rooms as the theatrical illusion begins to unravel. Abrahamyan, who masterfully handles her split physical identity, strips to her lingerie so that Ruggiero might finally recognize her. Prevailing uncertainty leads to all possible combination of attractions involving the women and Ruggiero. Jaroussky stole the spotlight with extraordinary lyricism in "Mi lusinga" and "Mio bel tesoro," while Bartoli physically stumbled at the faltering music that launches "Ah! mio cor!" and seemed to take stock of her pathetic surroundings (and note the real audience) for the first time. Jaroussky's "Verdi prati" concluded with one of the most breathtaking cadenzas I've heard.

Further transformations launch Act III, with the set of the Baroque stage in shambles and the singers portrayed much as they appear in real life. Julia Fuchs' "Credete, al mio dolore" rang painfully truthful in this new context, but Alcina cannot abandon her old Queen of the Night tricks, now with pistol in hand. Humor remains in play, however, as Ruggiero casually rejects her excessive (if beautifully sung) threats in "Ma quando tornerai" and his tigress aria unfolded as a thrilling dance number. When Bradamente strips so as to put on a dress, Krzysztof Baczyk (a powerful and well-acted Melisso) wrongly thinks he's about to get lucky and himself starts to undress. The final revelation involves a twist. When Ruggiero makes Alcina disappear amidst general mayhem and a chandelier like that in the Opernhaus Zürich comes crashing down, we see rising up from the trap the elaborate ivory dress once worn by Alcina... now donned by the red-wigged Morgana.