Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre are key to Adrian Noble’s production of Handel's Alcina, mounted only nine times since its 2010 première before this revival. When new, the production marked a rare foray into Baroque repertoire for the Wiener Staatsoper, and it remains so. This return of Minkowski’s Baroque specialist ensemble was met with sustained enthusiastic applause on opening night as all of the instrumentalists took their curtain call. Many of them had already been onstage, integrated into Noble’s interpretation of the opera as an evening of entertainment performed in the ballroom of an English Countess.

Myrtò Papatanasiu (Alcina) and Rachel Frenkel (Ruggiero) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Myrtò Papatanasiu (Alcina) and Rachel Frenkel (Ruggiero)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

With the Countess and her family and friends taking up the roles in the opera, Anthony Ward's stylish ballroom/conservatory set transforms to accommodate their theatrical imagination in lively and colorful ways, including a hot air balloon entrance for Bradamante and Melisso, and a brilliant field of green (the sorceress Alcina's island of bewitched seduction and transformation) that extends into the distance. The fresh cast yielded many captivating musical stretches, and together with Les Musiciens du Louvre, affirmed the value of spirit, dramatic variety and nuance within predictably repetitious forms and an admittedly generous venue.

As the play-within-a-play came to the foreground, the principal singers became more vocally secure and expressive. Chen Reiss emerged persuasively as Alcina's sister Morgana for her Act I "Tornami a vagheggiar", in which she repeatedly urges (in vain) the disguised Bradamente to return. With the story continuing apace in this production, Rachel Frenkel's Ruggiero becomes aware of the deception all around as the extended bright landscape turns dark, but beautifully infused by starlight.

Chen Reiss (Morgana) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Chen Reiss (Morgana)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

In this magically sombre atmosphere, Frenkel achieved a welcome penetrating and full tone while gritty instrumental timbres effectively launched Margarita Gritskova's (Bradamente) riveting and tightly controlled "Vorrei vendicarmi", with its suicidal inner section. Following this troubled, searching dramatic thread through to "Ah! mio cor!", Noble and Myrtò Papatanasiu as Alcina scored a theatrically thrilling conclusion to the first part. Prostate for an extended time, seemingly powerless, Papatanasiu nevertheless conveyed her continued quest to control others through generous timbre, radiating sustained lines. Minkowski and his musicians helped charge the house with energy before the curtain fell.

Although the score has been substantially trimmed, the lack of meaningful character development presents challenges as the plot of Alcina unfolds and aria types become less distinctive – an engrained issue that might have benefited from more vocal variety in the cast. Warmly lyrical were Benjamin Bruns' Oronte and Orhan Yildiz's Melisso. As the young boy Oberto, Lionel Wunsch tackled his three challenging arias with energy, a secure sense of pitch and captivating stage presence.

Benjamin Bruns (Oronte) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Benjamin Bruns (Oronte)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

What begins in this production as a private, amateur enactment of the story gradually deepens to support more direct identification with Handel's characters. The dance sequence is here treated as a tug of war between dark and light forces as Alcina sleeps, an effective interpretation of the music's sharply contrasting qualities. Later, during Morgana's mournful "Credete al mio dolore", the obbligato cello part is performed on stage. The concluding poignant instrumental cadenza elicits emotive responses from the onstage audience of silent male characters, who later seem poised to intervene when Alcina throttled Ruggiero. The onstage artistic spell is cleverly broken during Ruggiero's aria about an angry tigress, which is neither a convincing nor threatening simile, but entertaining and toe-tapping nevertheless. Baroque purists might prefer a more surefire line-up of brilliantly executed arias, but the theatrical framework of this Alcina offers a great deal, and is cast in an appealing and not infrequently memorable way.