A compendium of Handel clichés

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Actors in old-fashioned drawing-room plays used to resort to a somewhat baroque practice in which middle-class pain was indicated by meaningful looks of silent agony shot out into the middle distance - usually through french windows - while clinging to the furniture. Contemporary performances of Baroque opera have a nasty habit of descending into their own variant on such "mantelpiece clutching" in which intense emotion is acted out via agonised rolling on the floor and against the wall. Despite dashes of genuine illumination, whole swathes of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production of Alcina appeared to have bought into all that.

Actors in old-fashioned drawing-room plays used to resort to a somewhat baroque practice in which middle-class pain was indicated by meaningful looks of silent agony shot out into the middle distance - usually through french windows - while clinging to the furniture. Contemporary performances of Baroque opera have a nasty habit of descending into their own variant on such "mantelpiece clutching" in which intense emotion is acted out via agonised rolling on the floor and against the wall. Despite dashes of genuine illumination, whole swathes of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production of Alcina appeared to have bought into all that.

Indeed, the longer it went on, the more it like a compendium of clichés. Missed 15 years of the Handel revival? Don't worry, it was all here: the enormous gilt frame, the mirror, the overturned chair, the symbolic use of shoes...

I could go on. And I shall. The whole enterprise underlined the unimportance of being earnest. The production team wins points for consistency, but their ideas about disguise, deceit, costume and camouflage were stuck to so doggedly that these initially intriguing devices, designed to up the emotional ante, grew stale with repetition. The first time someone undressed - singing about the faithlessness of women, Rolf Romei's Oronte stripped down to well-filled boxer shorts - there was the thrill of an idea being made flesh in every sense, and the entire audience leant forward in expectation.

But by the second time cross-dressed Bradamante ripped open her shirt to reveal her literal figure and symbolic heart we'd hit the law of diminishing returns: intellectually neat but theatrically tiresome. Even Morgana's great aria "Tornami a vaggegiar", suffered by being accompanied by a bout of foot-fetishism.

Indeed, the whole evening could have been renamed "Ruggieiro Goes to Boot Camp" were it not for the fact that amid all the strenuous artificiality there was precious little camp. Which is not to say that Alcina, an almost Iris Murdoch-like tale of trapped lovers attempting to take flight from an enchantress, should be presented as magical froth. It's just that so much of the leadenly paced production took itself so painfully seriously that it became increasingly hard to do so oneself.

Nicholas Hyntner revealed Handel's comic highs and dramatic depths in his breathtaking 1985 English National Opera production of Xerxes, which dazzled and delighted audiences with its musical intelligence, visual sophistication and dramatic urgency. It catapulted Handel back into the repertoire, and while it is no-one's fault that this Stuttgart production arrived hot on the heels of David McVicar's one at ENO, the inevitable comparison does Stuttgart no favours. The secret of McVicar's success was shaping his dramatic concerns to the music by using real Handel singers like Sarah Connolly and Janis Kelly, but Stuttgart's direction and casting rarely managed to make ideas and music mesh.

In the title role, Catherine Naglestad had real presence and a piercingly dramatic voice, but not the vocal agility to make Handel's music soar. However, Claudia Mahnke in the tiny role of Oberto had such fierce concentration and thrillingly focused sound that she made you believe she was born to sing Handel.

The outstanding performance, however, came from Alice Coote as Ruggiero. The role is massively demanding - six major arias - but Coote was so strong that you wondered why Handel didn't call the opera Ruggiero. Rather than resorting to show-off shamelessness or vocal pyrotechnics, she held the audience rapt with expressive singing over long lean lines, her coolly sensuous voice caressing phrases with purity and power.

That skill comes from a technique so secure that she can concentrate on communication rather than the mechanics of vocal production. Striding about the single cold set, her long, pale face topped with tousled hair and her shirt tails hanging outside her man's suit, she looked like a cross between the young John McEnroe and a scruffy sixth-former.

The production was not helped by the orchestral playing, which was downright ordinary. Clearly, conductor Alan Hacker wanted to emphasise the power of the cellos and double-basses to give the drama weight, but that only works when matched by finesse in the upper strings which simply wasn't there.

I have no idea how much experience this orchestra has in Baroque repertoire, but on the strength of this performance I'd say not much. It was as if they were following Hacker's lead and abandoning full-blooded vibrato in favour of a whiter sound while remaining unconvinced about it. In fact, despite the best of intentions - and Alice Coote - the whole affair was pretty unconvincing.

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