OPERA / Marital difficulties: Edward Seckerson reviews Alcina at the Royal Opera House

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The Independent Culture
THE ARIAS linger on; the staging is best forgotten. What was Stephen Wadsworth's objective here? A synthesis of period stylisation and latterday naturalism? Eighteenth-century frocks, 20th-century manners? A decorous clarity? In that he partly succeeded. But surely the whole essence of Handel's Alcina lies in its fantasy, its elaborations, its enhancements. Some way has to be found to reconcile the passion and drama inherent in those wonderous vocalisations to their physical embodiment on stage - and further, to make the whole process live for today's audiences. Either you take on board the whole 18th- century theatrical convention with its gracious formalities and elaborate scenic transformations or you had best discard it altogether. Presumably Wadsworth hoped to have it both ways. Unwise - on this evidence, his theatrical imagination and stagecraft do not extend that far.

There were moments in this production that one hoped had long been consigned to the waste bins of operatic ineptitude - the taxidermic school of opera production. There were occasional signs of life. Not in Thomas P Lynch's set which just sort of sat there, hideously framed in turquoise and gold-trim like an autumn window display from the peoples' favourite store. All evening we gazed upon this expensive tree, too solid, too real to be remotely evocative of Alcina's enchanted isle. Or was the intention to play against outward appearances? The characters certainly looked 18th century, but they moved and behaved in a manner wholly unbecoming the period. And what about all the business with vestments? Was this a statement about identity or just something to occupy idle characters? When Morgana started making love to Bradamante's cape, I knew we were lost. A few frozen moments bathed in changing light (mercifully, the great arias were thus endowed) were insufficient to breathe enchantment into an evening that was, theatrically speaking, dead on arrival. By the time the denouement feebly came, dismay had turned to derision with amateurish shadow-play, a ludicrous tug-of-love, and Oronte whizzing by on Pegasus.

The only heroes here were vocal heroes, and they had their Achilles' heels. I much admire Yvonne Kenny's work but she was not heard or seen to best advantage. Wadsworth gave her scant authority on stage and her vocal command too was found wanting in a somewhat inhibited and edgy account of her Act I finale Ombre pallide. The beautiful Mi restano le lagrime showed her class - Alcina's unexpected vulnerability briefly, movingly surfacing. Even so, the pianissimo tone was not ideally centred or projected. Unkind comparisons could immediately be drawn with Ann Murray's Ruggiero. She is glorious in repose. Her two balmy Act II arias were highlights, the incomparable Verdi prati wafting into ever more remote but still palpable rapture. Under pressure the voice is inclined to spread and bluster, but at least Murray uses the energy of the coloratura to communicate, be it a mocking laughter or out and out virility. Judith Howarth's Morgana was excellent too, sparking off the brilliant roulades of her jubilant Tornami a vagheggiar.

When she pours out her heart to Oronte, begging forgiveness, the two stand side by side, his grief matched only by his resolve not to yield. Wadsworth got this moment right. So did Anthony Rolfe Johnson. He and Kathleen Kuhlmann's Bradamante were possessed of a suitably Handelian ripeness - more than can be said of the conducting. John Fisher tended towards an efficient anonymity, finding neither the fantasy nor the splendour of this masterpiece. He and the producer, both.

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