Alcina, loosely based on several subplots of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, is a wonderful coming-of-age story. Alcina’s island is an enchanted realm, where the sorceress, using her magic powers, has created a splendid palace and a beautiful landscape to lure lovers who are then transformed into wild animals, plants or rocks when she is tired of them. The great paladin Ruggiero falls prey to the witch’s enchantments, forgetting his duties and his beloved fiancée, Bradamante. She, disguised as a warrior, arrives on the island together with her former tutor, Melisso. Together, they release Ruggiero from the spell, he sees the magic world for the empty shell that it is, and he goes back to his true love and his responsibilities. The aria “Verdi prati” is the pivotal moment of the plot: Ruggiero has just been released from the spell, and he sings of all the beautiful things that will soon fade into ugly reality: he still sees the island as a wonderful, magical place, but he now knows that this beauty is fake, and the illusion will fade soon. The music is simple and perfectly expresses the feeling of “pre-emptive nostalgia” that embodies the inevitable passage into adulthood so well.

Agneta Eichenholz (Alcina), Narea Son (Oberto) and Franco Fagioli (Ruggiero) © Hans Jörg Michel
Agneta Eichenholz (Alcina), Narea Son (Oberto) and Franco Fagioli (Ruggiero)
© Hans Jörg Michel

In Christof Loy’s 2002 production, the enchanted world is the 18th century, with its costumes and dances, while the real world is our modern age of businessmen in dark suits and soldiers in camouflage fatigues. The unravelling of the plot is a process of deconstructing a Baroque wonder-world towards a painful modern incarnation. The Staatsoper Hamburg revived this production with a stellar cast.

The title role was taken by Agneta Eichenholz: her soprano was solid and secure, albeit perhaps a bit generic. After a slight slip-up in “Dì cor mio” (first night nerves, probably), she took command of her role, and the results were more successful in the lyrical, melancholic arias of the third act than they were when she played the sexy coquette in the first. “Ombre pallide” was her best moment; she managed to evoke compassion for the evil witch who was losing all her powers.

Narea Son (Oberto) and Julia Lezhneva (Morgana) © Hans Jörg Michel
Narea Son (Oberto) and Julia Lezhneva (Morgana)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Franco Fagioli’s Ruggiero was a foreseeable triumph. His top range sounded a bit less glorious than usual, especially in “Mi lusinga”, where high notes were a little strained and harsh (perhaps the tuning at 440hz did not help). On the other hand, his “Verdi prati” was perfect, drawing tears, and his “Sta nell’ircana” exploded in fireworks of confident coloratura, which sent the audience into a frenzy. His most amazing feature remains the round, smooth quality of his voice, supported with a beautiful legato, even when he ventures into the baritonal range, which he does liberally. He was seemingly born to dance around gallantly in an 18th-century outfit... truly a sight to behold.

The other singer who took the house down was Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva who, as Morgana, Alcina’s sister, has the most beloved aria of the whole opera: “Tornami a vagheggiar”. Her high range is bright and silvery, supported by a solid middle with great projection. Her coloratura is secure and exciting, and she uses trills liberally, though they often sound more like very fast picchiettati than real trills. Extremely effective, nevertheless.

Franco Fagioli (Ruggiero), Agneta Eichenholz (Alcina), Sonia Prina (Bradamante), Narea Son (Oberto) © Hans Jörg Michel
Franco Fagioli (Ruggiero), Agneta Eichenholz (Alcina), Sonia Prina (Bradamante), Narea Son (Oberto)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Bradamante was Sonia Prina; her somewhat acidic contralto was a very good counterpart to Fagioli and Lezhneva. She is a stage animal: her acting and interpretation were irresistible and much appreciated. Loy plays a lot with the gender confusion in this production (it seems to be one of his tropes); the infatuation of Morgana for “Ricciardo” (Bradamante dressed up as her “brother”) develops as a constant theme throughout the opera. Bradamante, like her beloved Ruggiero, seems to fall under the spell of a sorceress, so that she and Morgana are constantly fooling around in one corner or other of the stage. Prina and Lezhneva showed great chemistry, playing this subplot with elegance and the right amount of tongue in cheek.

Among the other roles, Narea Son made an impression as Oberto with her clear, bright soprano and agile coloratura. Riccardo Minasi’s reading of the score was sweet and delicate, less crisp than other Baroque specialists, but emotional and enjoyable. The continuo was particularly precise and idiomatic, driving the action forward.

****1