Salzburg Festival 2019

Reviewer's rating

This famous opera by Handel, which premiered at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on 16 April 1735, has always been one of the favourites of the baroque repertoire for the sheer beauty of its music and the fantastic settings from Ludovico Ariosto’ Orlando Furioso. Salzburg Festival proposes again the innovative production of 2019 Withsun Festival under the direction of Damiano Michieletto.

Handel’s Alcina follows the rigid baroque structure of alternating recitatives and arias up until the end, but at the same time offers relative freedom to directors having less immediate constraints than for example nineteenth-century operas. Michieletto, one of the cleverest director of his generation, takes advantage of this freedom and rids us of is of wigs and hoop skirts, but at the same time, he stays faithful to Handel’s main ideas.

By concentrating on the two engines of the operas, deception and jealousy (all characters at some point are either victims of perpetrators of both), he captures the essence of it without complicating it with strange additions. Alcina is by far the master of deception, having created, with the use of magic, a world that is beautiful on the surface but in reality full of grief. However, she is not portrayed as a powerful sorceress, but rather as a woman extremely worried about losing her powers and especially her youth. An alter ego in the shape of an old woman appears several times to show to her and to us the real Alcina. In the end, she is the biggest victim of the deception created by herself. Her former imprisoned lovers stay behind a semi-transparent screen asking for freedom or transformed into stones or trees (two natural elements often recurring in Michieletto’s productions) whereas the deceptive world created by her appears as a hotel lobby with guests coming and going. The whole opera carries on in this framework: Bradamante, Ruggiero, Morgana and Oronte also deceives and have outbursts of jealousy in their own way. When eventually Alcina loses her powers, the screen in the middle is lifted and the imprisoned lovers are set free in a cathartic finale.

The overall mood is deliberately dark and eerie, except for a few comical moments offered by Sandrine Piau in the role of Morgana. However, not for one moment does the opera tire or bore the audience thanks to the dancers’ choreographies and video art projection onto the screen that render the idea of a magical world. However, it was the quality of the singers and orchestra that ensured the success of the performance. First of all, Cecilia Bartoli, in the title roles, gave an intense unforgettable interpretation, her Alcina was touching, needy, her fear of getting old and losing her power and charm was delivered with the hues of her voice as well as the acting. Philippe Jaroussky was a credible undecisive Ruggiero from the beginning when he was under the spell to the end when he finally finds the courage to break the spell. Sandrine Piau was an amazing Morgana, her coloratura was pure and her acting was very apt to the comic role of this character, Kristina Hammarström gave us a really great interpretation of Bradamante in her resolution to free Ruggiero. The rest of the cast was equally fine, including the young Sheen Park of the Vienna Boys Choir in the difficult role of Oberto. The conductor Gianluca Capuano and the orchestra Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco are specialist of the baroque repertoire and performed the difficult score with minute attention to details.

The show was an amazing experience throughout and, except for a few members of the audience who were clearly nostalgic for old baroque productions, it was greatly appreciated.