Alcina, written in 1735, is one of George Frideric Handel’s more popular operas – he composed 42 of them. Inspired by Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (like Handel’s other operas Orlando and Ariodante), it tells of a sorceress who – like the Greek Circe – lives on an island and seduces the men who happen to reach its shores, before tiring of them and turning them into animals. When the heroic knight Ruggiero falls into her arms she falls in love with him, this time for real, and for a short while her spell makes him forget his true love Bradamante. Dressed as a knight named “Ricciardo”, Bradamate follows him to the island to reclaim him, and this causes a comedy of errors, as Alcina’s sister, Morgana, falls for Ricciardo. Handel’s original opera lasts nearly four hours before it reaches a happy ending in which the witch is punished with losing her power and all the trapped men, including Ruggiero, are set free.
Ido Ricklin, the director of this new production, found connections between the narrative of Alcina and that of Norma Desmond, the forlorn heroine of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. that captures in her spell a failed writer who happens to drive his car into her driveway. Inspired by the similarity, he chose to design the opera as a variation on film noir, made a bunch of cuts (in a way that sometimes hurt the drama of the characters), and changed the ending. This idea works only partially, creating some very interesting scenes in a generally unsatisfying whole.
The island is reimagined as big a wall of windows (designed by Roni Toren) that also serve as mirrors, and sometimes as a screen on which bits of scenes are projected – such as a close-up of Ruggiero’s face as he is being drowned in a basin. The way the characters seem to fall in and out of love with each other, and then with others, as if lost in a hall of mirrors, is reflected in this impressive set. Some scenes stand out – such as the one in which four women dressed as Rita Hayworth in Gilda illustrate an aria about the seductive power of women. The most memorable scene depicts Ruggiero’s confusion when Ricciardo takes off “his” biker’s outfit and is revealed to be Bradamante. Four women dressed exactly like the half-revealed Bradamate, move around on the stage in pointy brassieres, and then take them off, baffling Ruggiero (and the audience) even more.
But the film noir inspiration wasn’t fully applied. Much more could be done with the lighting of the stage. Also, some of the outfits, especially the evening dress is worn by Alcina, didn’t support her characterization as a tragic femme fatal. Also, Ruggiero’s silk pajama was probably meant to signify that he is living in a dream state, just didn’t seem right.
Musically, the production is mostly a success. Soprano Yael Levita in the title role sang beautifully, especially in the final aria in which she is left all alone after the spell is broken and she had shot her lover in the back. However, as above mentioned, the direction didn’t allow the audience to identify with her pain. Yi Vince, the South Korean contratenor, demonstrated a pure soprano in the role of Ruggiero (castrato in the original 18th-century production), but not much could be said of his acting. Soprano Hila Fahima brought pizzazz to the role of Morgana, and her performance was the liveliest thing on the stage. Her sex scene with Bradamate, in which her high notes turned into orgasmic sounds, is a standout. In the role of Bradamante, Mezzo-soprano Anat Szarny, wasn’t as in charge of her voice as her colleagues.
The Israeli Baroque Collective (not the regular opera orchestra) was conducted with verve by Ethan Schmeisser, who excels in baroque music – in the past, he has conducted Orlando and Dido and Aeneas and other baroque works at the Israeli Opera. This time the orchestra pit was incorporated into the set, put in the middle of the stage. It was a nice touch as if the musicians are also trapped on the island with all of Alcina’s other victims.
- Music by George Frideric Handel
- Libretto: after Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto
- Conductor: Ethan Schmeisser
- Director: Ido Ricklin
- Sung in Italian with Hebrew and English surtitles
- Cast includes Yael Levita, Yi Vince, Hila Fahima, Anat Szarny
- The Israeli Opera Tel-Aviv-Yafo האופרה הישראלית תל-אביב-יפו
- Until 30th of May 2022
- Running time: 2hrs 30mins including interval