A ROW of chairs on a shiny black floor. A glass display cabinet. An audience watching us, watching them, watching Handel. Conscious or unconscious allusions to a house style? Tiny acts of homage to a now well- established tradition? Hytner's Xerxes, Alden's Ariodante, Carson's Rodelinda - ENO's Handel has a strong identity and David McVicar's fine new Alcina further strengthens it. The task is, as ever, an exacting one: how to conceptualise these marvellous pieces, how to bring them alive, make them surprising for a modern audience. How to respect their stylistic manner,their 18th-century attitude, while giving them a contemporary edge. McVicar has a plan...
Even as the Overture unfolds, Melisso (Bradamante's tutor), surrounded by books and equipment, the instruments of science and learning, is charting the way to Alcina's magic island. Eighteenth century ladies and gentlemen, decked out in all their finery, are seen hurrying through the rain (how appropriate). To the opera. This opera. And so before a note has been sung, McVicar has drawn a clear parallel (obvious, you might say) between Alcina's magic and the theatrical magic which has brought it to life since Handel's day.
Alcina is first discovered at the harpsichord (no doubt trying on her latest arias for size). She only exists because Handel composed her. The opera will end, and so will her magic. Her entire world will - quite literally - turn inside out and then vanish, leaving the stage gutted.
For now, though, the doorway to this magic kingdom, to a theatrical past that Handel knew so well and cultivated so richly, is a fabulous gold 18th-century facade (designer Michael Vale) whose windows and doors open like magic casements on to corn fields and rolling seas beyond. We are made conscious of the 18th-century stage machinery.McVicar honours their ingenuity, while gently, wrily, subverting it.
Sue Blane's stunning costumes - not least those of Alcina's "spirits" - masquerade, in every sense. For Morgana, Alcina's unfortunate sister (the wonderful Lisa Milne), she has devised a delicious series of fashion mishaps - vulgar, soiled, unfinished rejects from her big-sister's dressmakers. She can no more rise above her outfits than she can her overpowering sibling. In another wicked subversion of the 18th-century style, McVicar has his choreographer, Michael Keegan-Dolan, devise a series of dances which toy with period manners but nod, too, at pop videos.
But, of course, the biggest stylistic challenge of all is the musical one - and this was, in the main, a triumphant vindication of English National Opera's current status. All the singing was most accomplished. But beyond that, great Handel requires star performers who can transcend their vocal technique and lift the aching lamentations and dizzying coloratura to a higher purpose. I'll wager there weren't many in the audience who have heard Morgana's hit number "Come take me in your arms" better or more naughtily sung than it was here by Lisa Milne. Marilyn herself couldn't have affected a bigger come-on.
Then there was the marvellous Sarah Connolly, her Ruggiero looking for all the world like a cross between Robin Cousins and Rupert Everett. The heartache of her rapt laments, as remarkable for their control as for the depth of emotion conveyed, totally silenced the theatre. And when she did pull out the fireworks for "Deep in the forest", she and Handel's exultant horns, brought out from under wraps for the first time to stunning effect, created its own open-air drama. With his cunning and effective mix of period and modern instruments, Sir Charles Mackerras was at all times an exemplary stylist and motivator, drawing us in, making a big house seem smaller, coaxing from his singers the best and most expressive in ornamentation and yearning appoggiaturas.
Joan Rodgers took some enormous risks with Alcina's ravishing enticements, always stretching herself to wring real pathos from the role. And nowhere more so than in her great and extended lament "Ah, my heart! You are rejected!" where she literally catches sight of her loneliness in the mirror, only to slip sadly away into the outreached hands of her watchful spirits. As music, as theatre, moments like that don't get much better.
This production will be broadcast live tonight on Radio 3 at 6.25pm