English Touring Opera began its autumn tour, as usual, at the Hackney Empire, a place I haven’t been to before, and shall hesitate about going to again, not so much because of the tropical temperature inside as the rigours of getting there and back into the centre of London. It was good to see it so crowded, and to see ETO’s very fine performance of Alcina greeted with such enthusiasm. The company’s repertoire and touring plans are becoming ever more ambitious, and it is indicative, too, of the astonishing growth in appreciation of Handel’s greatness that so demanding a production as this can be taken to Lincoln, Ulverston, even Cambridge.
The opera itself, apart from its somewhat daunting length, is not taxing, but James Conway, ETO’s general director and the director, too, of this production, made it clear in his pre-performance talk that he didn’t want to spare the audience the trouble of thinking, and he was true to his word. He relocates the action to mid-17th-century England, so that Alcina becomes a specifically Cavalier seductress, while the forces ranged against her consist of grim Roundhead types. In Conway’s view, which is not the most obvious one of the opera, but aims to stimulate by cutting across the obvious without being too aggressive about it, the defeat of pleasure and sensuality is by no means wholly to be applauded; and he thinks that the music of the closing scenes bears that out. He sees the whole work in what I suspect are more sophisticated terms than its creators did, and, if I hadn’t attended his talk and read the long and extremely suggestive director’s notes, I don’t think I’d have realised all that was going on. That is no criticism of anyone except possibly me.
For Conway, Alcina is a ‘profound and painful vivisection of love’, especially of the forgetfulness and misplaced nostalgia that loves incurs. Love is ‘heedless, memory-less, shameless’, but that’s not necessarily bad, if you think of the dourness of the alternative, which is at least, in Conway’s restrained phrase, ‘a little pallid’: responsibility, the subjugation of desire, prudent reckoning, contracts between equals are some of the grim choices that Conway lists on the other side.
After the horrifying shallowness and vulgarity of David McVicar’s widely acclaimed Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne this year, it’s a great relief to be reminded that Handel and his librettists took on serious issues seriously. Actually, the last production of Alcina I saw was as serious as Conway’s, and by none other than McVicar, which goes to show that you should never give up hoping — or fearing. Where McVicar saw the opera as a conflict between Reason and Passion, with Handel’s bust, symbol of passion, being smashed at the end, Conway’s terms are more complex. I’m not wholly convinced by them, but I certainly want to see the production again. Musically it is very fine, or anyway the singing and playing are.
I have more reservations about the conducting of Gary Cooper, which already alarmed me in the overture by its flaccidity and rhythmic inertia. It seemed, later on, that if he had a general strategy it was to smooth out Handel’s accents in the interests of a luxuriant and unbumpy cushion of sound, emerging from the small but on the whole excellent orchestra, though on the first night the horns had no luck at all. Cooper favours, particularly for arias of reflection or longing or languishing, which is well over half of them, tempi which begin slowly and gradually wind down until it becomes a real issue as to whether the arias will ever end. If the show had been 20 minutes shorter, I would have been far more moved. Even grief and yearning have their own vitality.
Fortunately, a superb team of soloists looked after the drama, and acted with all the conviction which they were bringing to their song. The Alcina of Amanda Echalaz, last season’s magnificent Fiordiligi, is a star performance, with no reservations. She makes the sorceress a potent centre of attraction, a monster of possessiveness, an agonisingly crumbling wreck of loss. As her music disintegrates and her glamour falls off her, this Alcina becomes one of the most poignant ex-villains in opera. Her lightweight sister Morgana, whose character cunningly overlaps and drastically contrasts with Alcina’s, is the winsome, but not too much so, Tamsin Coombs.
By their side the other characters are bound to be a bit wet or prissy, but Louise Poole as the vacillating Ruggiero looks fine and sings, especially the arias in which he is simply not able to decide what kind of life he wants or can bear, superbly. His beloved Bradamante, who spends most of the opera disguised as her own brother, is the convincing Marie Elliott Davies. The two male roles that are taken by men are less convincing, but perhaps their music is, too. Most of the opera is enacted in Stygian gloom, and a few more watts would render the complicated symbolism less opaque. There is very little preventing this from being an unmitigated triumph, far worthier to achieve semi-immortality on DVD than most of the big-name productions from fabulously subsidised companies and theatres that regularly do.