When an opera has a plot as convoluted and comprehensively daft as Handel’s Alcina, one’s enjoyment depends principally on one thing: how well can the singers sell me their text? Can they take me out of the general state of battiness and transport me to a place where I truly believe the love, the rage or the fear? In the case of Lisette Oropesa, the answer is a resounding “yes”: if I were an Eskimo and Oropesa was selling fridges, I’d be at the front of the queue!

Lisette Oropesa (Alcina)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Leaving aside Oropesa’s technical excellence, it’s the emotional investment that got me every time. Her opening aria “Di', cor mio, quanto t'amai” lifted me far away to a happy land of romance. “Ombre pallide”, the Act 2 closer, had me melting with sympathy – despite this being an evil sorceress complaining to the dark spirits about the loss of her powers.

Oropesa sets the bar so high that you have to feel a level of sympathy for anyone sharing a stage with her; some very fine singing last night was somewhat eclipsed. Mary Bevan, as Alcina’s sorceress sister Morgana, came closer than anyone with “Credete al mio dolore”, the sweetness of her tone and glittering highs making success inevitable in her plea for reconciliation to her lover Oronte. Rupert Charlesworth sang Oronte with great appeal and plenty of vigour.

Emily D'Angelo (Ruggiero)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

In the trouser role of Ruggiero, the knight haplessly besotted with Alcina, Emily D’Angelo had the most to sing and may have been pacing herself, because she started rather on the quiet side. However, I enjoyed her singing increasingly as the opera progressed. Varduhi Abrahamyan was earnest as Ruggiero’s wife and would-be rescuer Bradamante; José Coca Loza provided an authoritative bass as Ruggiero’s tutor Atlante. Covent Garden’s deep orchestra pit blends the orchestral sound in a way that isn’t kind to Baroque playing, so it was difficult for players to shine other than in the instrumental solos. Christian Curnyn and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House kept things moving and well balanced with the singers.

Mary Bevan (Morgana) and Rupert Charlesworth (Oronte)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Richard Jones’ new production is quirky with a capital Q. With costumes including a little-black-number cocktail dress for Alcina, see-through navy dress over sexy underwear for Morgana, kilts (at one point) for Ruggiero and Bradamante, lumberjack shirt and cargo pants for Oronte, and Puritan minister’s attire for Atlante, all placed within a background smothered in ruched curtains, I’m going to suggest that stylistic coherence wasn’t at the front of designer Antony McDonald’s mind. But the staging brims with visual gags and the humour works. Alcina’s discarded lovers, whom she has turned into animals, wear beautifully crafted animal’s heads: turkey, frog, goat, dog, lion and many more. Alcina’s enchanted forest looks like a set of oversized bonsai trees wheeled on- and off-stage; I’m not sure why the giant toolshed was there but revolving it provided an entertaining fade-to-black for Morgana and Oronte’s tryst.

Mary Bevan (Morgana), Lisette Oropesa (Alcina) and Rupert Charlesworth (Oronte)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

Sarah Fahie’s movement direction is surefooted and her choreography as quirky as the rest of the piece; a Bollywood-style routine performed by dancers in animal heads will be an enduringly wacky memory of this production.  The most fun of the visuals was Alcina’s magic urn, incarnated as a giant perfume bottle with her name as the brand (a squirt from the huge atomiser is the magic that transforms people into animals). Four large posters of Oropesa as Chanel-style perfume model are occasionally arrayed above the stage; I’m guessing that she relished the photoshoot. The visual gags come thick and fast; I won’t spoil them other than to advise you to watch out for Jones’ unique take on “Comfort and Joy” in the closing chorus.

Malakai M Bayoh (Oberto) and Varduhi Abrahamyan (Bradamante)
© ROH | Marc Brenner

There was one shocking moment. Alcina includes a role for a boy soprano, Oberto, which was sung by 12-year old Malakai M Bayoh. In the second of his three arias, a single audience member started booing repeatedly. Whether or not this was racially motivated – and I fear the worst – I cannot imagine how anyone could be so cruel as to boo a 12-year old singer. I’m glad to say that when the aria ended, the booer was drowned by a huge ovation, which was repeated for the third aria, “Barbara! Io ben lo so”, deservedly so because Bayoh sang it superbly. I hope we see a lot more of him at Covent Garden;  The Royal Opera, to their credit, have stated that the booer will not be returning.

In all honesty, I don’t share Jones’ taste in visual aesthetics. But even so, I was won over by the big heart and good humour of this production. A strong all round vocal performance and Oropesa’s exceptional singing of the title role make this well worth the visit.

****1