All you need to know about Handel’s final ‘magic opera’ – right here…
What is the story?
The opera is set on a magical island belonging to Alcina – a beautiful but dangerous enchantress who seduces every man that lands there, and transforms them into rocks or wild animals when she has grown tired of them!
Her latest victim is dashing knight Ruggiero, causing his fiancée Bradamante (along with her guardian Melissa) to follow him to the island, disguised as a man named ‘Ricciardo’. She aims to free him with the help of a magic ring, which can break Alcina’s spell. However, the plan goes awry when Alcina’s sister, Morgana, is smitten with ‘Ricciardo’ and abandons her previous lover Oronte, causing general mayhem.
Melissa eventually manages to slips the ring onto Ruggiero’s finger, who suddenly sees the island for the wasteland of discarded lovers it really is. He and Bradamante hatch a plan to escape the island, but Alcina discovers and is heartbroken – she had fallen genuinely in love with Ruggiero. Will the vengeful sorceress let them leave?
Who are the characters?
Alcina [al-CHEE-nah] – an enchantress (soprano)
Morgana [mor-GAN-ah] – her sister (soprano)
Ruggiero [roo-JYER-oh] – a knight (countertenor)
Bradamante* [bra-da-MAN-teh] – his fiancée (mezzo-soprano)
Melissa [me-LISS-ah] – her guardian (mezzo-soprano)
Oronte [o-RON-teh] – leader of Alcina’s army (tenor)
*sometimes disguised as ‘Ricciardo’
Fflur Wyn as Morgana and Máire Flavin as Alcina in rehearsal © Tom Arber
What is the music like?
Alcina was written in the Baroque era (c. 1600-1750). As such, the orchestra features various early instruments, including recorders, which all help create a very distinctive sound world.
The score is broken up into arias and recitative. During the arias, the plot is paused and a character expresses their feelings in that moment, providing the audience a window into that character’s soul. The connecting recitative (which is essentially sung speech performed with ‘continuo’ such as harpsichord accompanying the singers), contains the plot development. Alcina features one of Handel’s most famous arias: the beautiful ‘Verdi prati’ (‘Green meadows’) – Ruggiero’s farewell to the island.
Certain arias, such a ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ follow a popular format of the time known as ‘da capo’ (literally ‘from the top’). This means that after a contrasting middle section, the first section returns but with added musical ornaments – often improvised on the spot by the singer.
What is this production like?
Tim Albery‘s new production is inspired by Princess Margaret’s Mustique or Richard Branson’s Necker – a very private, tropical island retreat. In this case, the island is the home of a woman of great beauty, power and wealth who, siren-like, seduces and entrances men, casting them aside when she grows bored with them. This is Alcina. She meets her match in a newly-arrived young man, in fact a woman in disguise come to reclaim her fiancé from Alcina’s enchantment.
As they and the rest of Alcina’s entourage become trapped by their ever more complex fears and desires, the sun-drenched beach is left behind and they lose themselves deeper and deeper in the darkening forest, becoming little more than wild beasts, all sophistication stripped away…
This production furthers our commitment to sustainability – all costumes, fabrics, furniture and scenic elements are vintage, second hand or repurposed.
Nick Pritchard as Oronte, Fflur Wyn as Morgana and Mari Askvik as Bradamante © James Glossop
Who was the composer?
Alcina was written by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel was born in Germany, but moved to London in 1713 and became a fully-fledged Londoner, transforming the city’s cultural landscape through his music.
Handel’s most famous pieces today include his Messiah (heard everywhere at Christmas), Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Coronation Anthems (composed for George II and performed at every coronation since). However, Handel also wrote over 40 operas, which were game-changing for the genre. Previously, opera (especially in London) had simply been a string of arias designed to show off singers’ vocal abilities, but with Handel, real storytelling and fully-rounded characters emerged.
George Frideric Handel © Balthasar Denner
A little history
Alcina is based on part of a fantastical 1532 Italian epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto called Orlando furioso. The poem is full of romance and chivalry, but also includes a trip to the moon, a gigantic sea monster and a flying horse!
Handel composed the opera in 1735 for his new company, based at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (what is now the Royal Opera House), in collaboration with producer John Rich, who was renowned for his spectacular productions. The first rehearsal took place at Handel’s own house on 11 April – his neighbour, artist Mary Pendarves, was there and wrote: “I think it is the best he ever made… While Mr Handel was playing his part, I could not help thinking of him as a necromancer in the midst of his own enchantments”.
Alcina premiered just a few days later and ran for a remarkable 18 performances. However, it was to be Handel’s last great London success – at the end of the following season, his company collapsed under a huge financial deficit. As a result, this opera, and many of Handel’s others, fell into obscurity. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that Alcina began to be recognised as one of the composer’s most brilliant works, and to be performed more often. This will be Opera North’s first ever staging.
Engraving of the original Covent Garden Theatre before the fire of 1808
Did you know?
– Epic poem Orlando furioso had a wide cultural influence – it inspired two other Handel operas (Ariodante and Orlando) and much other art and theatre, including scenes in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
– Alcina is one of Handel’s most complex heroines – she is both witch and woman, villain and victim. Her music shifts from fiery to sympathetic and back and again, but overall she comes over as surprisingly vulnerable. ‘Ah! mio cor!’ (sung when Alcina discovers Ruggiero’s plans to leave) is a true grief aria, full of emotion – the phrases come in isolated chunks as if she is too distraught to sustain them.
– The role of Ruggiero can be sung by either a mezzo-soprano (female) or a countertenor (male singing in falsetto voice). These roles were originally sung by ‘castrati’. Because of the way their bodies developed, ‘castrati’ had unrivalled lung capacity and extremely flexible voices, and were the opera superstars of the day. The practise of castration to produce singers was eventually made illegal – thankfully!