Alcina by George Frideric Handel Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 4**** Clare Colvin

Handel’s fantastical opera Alcina was the grand finale to the glorious run of Italian operas the composer wrote up to 1735, at which point the evolving taste of London’s audiences forced a change of mood to more serious oratorios, sung in English, on biblical or historical themes. Richard Jones’s new production of Alcina captures the enchantment with which Handel dazzled his audience in the years when cross-dressing and heavenly high trills added to the ambiguous fun of the operatic fair.

Antonio Marchi’s libretto is based on the Renaissance poet Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”, centring on the sorceress Alcina who tempted the knights of the crusades to enjoy the pleasures of her magical island, and turned them into animals when she tired of them. For good measure Handel brought in a sister enchantress, Morgana, to join Alcina and add a seductive frisson to the brew.

Richard Jones with designer Antony McDonald and the Royal Opera House production department, have created a gorgeous pantomime with the masks and costumes. There’s an animalistic flair to the modelled heads, giving marked character to such as the towering bolt-eyed rabbit, the King Charles’s spaniel, the shaggy-maned lion, and horned goat. The sister sorceresses complement each other in their choice of footwear – teetering stilettos for the wayward Alcina of Lisette Oroposa and childlike bootees for Mary Bevan’s flame-haired Morgana. Among the bright ideas that abound is the cut-glass perfume bottle titled “Alcina” with which the enchantress spritzes lovers into animals.

It’s best to go with the flow over the convoluted plot, which is gender fluid. Bradamante (mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan), disguised as her brother “Ricciardo”, arrives on the island to rescue her husband Ruggiero (mezzo Emily D’Angelo) from Alcina’s clutches. The impetus slackens after the second act, where Ruggiero leaves the island, and Alcina finds her powers have abandoned her, and at times the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Christian Curnyn sets too leisurely a pace. But throughout the four hour evening the arias are gorgeously sung and the cast interacts beautifully. By the end, we feel thoroughly magicked.

In repertory to 26 November

Conductor Christian Curnyn

Director Richard Jones

Lighting Designer Lucy Carter

Movement Director and Choreographer Sarah Fahie

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Concert Master Sergey Levitin

Production pictures Marc Brenner

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