Il Maggio Musicale Fiorentino presents this year a “Festival Verdi” which, despite its name, also includes works from other periods and composers: Handel’s Alcina, announced with Cecilia Bartoli, was one of the most attractive propositions. Many fans (yours truly included) were dismayed to arrive in Florence and see that Bartoli had to cancel due to laryngitis, but the evening turned out to be a great success, nevertheless.

Marie Lys (Alcina)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Marie Lys, the young Swiss singer called in at the last minute to replace Bartoli as Alcina, was a wonderful surprise. Her high soprano has a natural, spontaneous quality, with beautiful high notes, easy and free, but still a depth, a “thickness” in her timbre enhancing the dramatic affect. Her lower register had beautiful support and presence, and her technique was spotless. A singer to follow in the future!

Damiano Michieletto’s production, which I had already enjoyed in Salzburg, improved further on second sight. It is a very busy production, with lots of ideas and a contemporary setting, but always true to the story and the original spirit. I had time to appreciate details I missed the first time, like Alcina unleashing the sea storms with her bare hands, the waves and gales acted out by dancers rolling on the floor, following her gestures. These dancers represented her prisoners, former lovers now enslaved, and acted as “furies”, that she let loose against her enemies.

Alcina at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

The orchestra Les Musiciens du Prince, led by Gianluca Capuano, was perhaps the best performer of the evening. Capuano’s attention to detail was admirable, his interpretation original and bold. The orchestra followed and supported the singers, often mimicking the same variations in the da capo of the arias, sign of a thorough, careful preparation. In Alcina’s most famous aria, “Ah! mio cor!”, the orchestra boldly played more into Alcina’s rage rather than her melancholy, for a novel, original interpretation, closely followed by Lys, who was the very embodiment of a woman scorned. The solos in the instrumental sections were delightful; particularly the inspired, furious cembalo (Gabriele Levi), the cello in Morgana’s third act aria “Credete al mio dolore” (Robin Michael), and of course the magnificent horns in Ruggiero’s “Sta nell’ircana” (Erwin Wieringa and Gilbert Camí Farràs).

Carlo Vistoli (Ruggiero)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Ruggiero, the Christian knight who won Alcina’s heart and lives with her in a state of forgetful enchantment, was countertenor Carlo Vistoli. His timbre may not have the sweetness and charm of others, but his performance was extraordinary. In Michieletto’s view, Ruggiero is extremely conflicted, his loyalty to his “Christian knight” status and to his fiancée Bradamante contrasted by his leisurely, enjoyable life as Alcina’s toyboy. Vistoli was a living turmoil of emotions, his voice and acting expressing every nuance of his character's confusion. His breath technique, coloratura and projection dazzled in “Sta nell’ircana”, while in “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” he expressed most effectively melancholy, love and doubt.

Kristina Hammarström sang Bradamante, who has some of the fiercest arias in the whole opera. She sailed through the coloratura with ease, showing an extreme control of her voice, a deep, very warm and elegant mezzo bordering on contralto. Her high notes were spectacular, in such a low-centred voice, which showed great uniformity over the whole range. Hammarström and Vistoli were the protagonists of one of the most successful scenes: when Ruggiero recovers his wits and finally recognises his beloved, their reconciliation was so well acted and moving that it was impossible not to smile.

Kristina Hammarström (Bradamante) and Lucía Martín-Cartón (Morgana)
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Lucía Martín-Cantón was a spirited Morgana, her soprano a tad hollow in the middle, but most effective in the higher register – she attacked a few phrases with exciting, laser-like precision on extremely high notes. Oronte, in love with Morgana, was Petr Nekoranec, whose light tenor was very suited to the part. He showed very good coloratura and legato, while his pronunciation could perhaps be improved. Riccardo Novaro sang Melisso with a pleasant, well supported baritone; the character of Ruggiero’s father figure came out very well and complemented the action.

In Alcina there is a character, Oberto, who is supposed to be sung by a boy soprano (often this role is sung by a woman or cut altogether). Stefan, an apparently 10-year-old soloist from the Wiltener Sängerknaben, sang all the three arias with competence; as expected, his white voice tended to be not fully supported in the middle, and the da capo of the hardest aria was cut, but his high notes were very well supported, and he showed great musicality. He was adorable, running around searching for his lost father, even threatening Alcina with her own axe.

The house at the new Zubin Mehta Auditorium was not completely full, but the evening was a tremendous success, with several calls and great applause for all.