By Beck Feibelman
When Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina premiered in London in 1735, it was a triumphant success. Three centuries later, to hear the voluptuous beauty and drama of the opera’s music is to understand why. Based on renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto’s epic Orlando furioso, a source for numerous operas by various baroque composers, Alcina was Händel’s third opera in as many years drawn from that literary source. It’s a story of adventure, mistaken identity, power and sorcery. If you strip away the magic and peer beyond the baroque ornamentation, what emerges is a surprisingly familiar, relatable story about the possibilities and consequences of true love.
Alcina, a capricious sorceress, rules over a magic island of pleasure and delight. Her powers might be supernatural, but her motivations all too mundane: whenever a new knight washes up on her shores, she literally enchants him and then, when tired of him, she transforms him into a wild animal, a plant, a stone or a wave in the sea as she awaits to seduce her next visitor. In the opera, the knight now under Alcina’s spell is Ruggiero, who remains safe from transformation because Alcina, breaking from her cruel pattern, has fallen sincerely in love with him. The plot follows Ruggiero’s fiancée, Bradamante—disguised as her own brother, “Ricciardo”—as well as Ruggiero’s tutor, Melisso, as they try to break Alcina’s magical hold on the knight so that the true lovers may marry. The cast is filled out by Morgana, Alcina’s sister, a more guileless romantic; Oronte, a courtier who is Morgana’s lover at the start of the opera; and Oberto, a young boy searching the island for his missing father, unaware that Alcina turned him into a lion.
Keeping track of the shifting bonds of love and frustrations of betrayal would seem to require some of Alcina’s magic. Throughout the opera, everyone constantly lies about whom they love, or else they’re confused about whom they love, or else they’re lying or confused about whom someone else loves. Not only does Alcina make Ruggiero fall madly in love with her against his will, he doesn’t even remember his authentic love for Bradamante. Alcina’s love for Ruggiero seems to surprise her; it’s as if she, too, is compelled against her will, swayed by old-fashioned emotion, not magic.
If Alcina is unaccustomed to falling in love, Morgana does it all the time. When she meets Bradamante as “Ricciardo,” she casts Oronte aside and declares her feelings for her new friend. Jealous, Oronte tries to convince Ruggiero that “Ricciardo” is there to steal Alcina from him. “Ricciardo” pretends to love Morgana, who protects him from being turned into a beast. When Ruggiero is finally free of the spell and finally stands face to face with his beloved Bradamante, he refuses to believe it is really she; he assumes the woman before him is another one of Alcina’s illusions. It all starts to feel like a soap opera. Or college.
These shifting, intense emotions and love affairs resonate around Händel’s glorious music. When Ruggiero finally believes that Alcina will not leave him for “Ricciardo,” his aria “La bocca vaga” (“Her lovely lips”) is a victory lap. Still believing “Ricciardo” loves Alcina, Ruggiero taunts him, enunciating the staccato words like slaps: “I know that her lovely lips, her black eyes bewitch you. But she does not love you!”
Later, freed of Alcina’s enchantment but pretending to be under her power, Ruggiero sings “Mio bel tesoro” (“My beautiful beloved”) to his captor. The texts of the two arias are remarkably similar, but the music and the arias’ roles in the complicated narrative contrast sharply. In this second aria, Ruggiero sings: “I promise to be true to my idol. [aside] But not to you.”
Alcina thinks Ruggiero is proclaiming his faithful love, but he carefully leaves the name unspoken; the idol to whom he declares his fidelity is, in fact, Bradamante, and he gets away with it as the music flows more lyrically than the more pointed “La bocca vaga.” It sounds like a heartfelt declaration of love—unless Alcina concentrates on all the words.
Italian opera composers often close their first act with a superlatively exciting showpiece. Here, Morgana, the man-crazy free-spirit in love with love, delivers the ecstatic, lilting confection “Tourami a vagheggiar” (“Come back, dearest!”). “Ricciardo” has just recklessly confessed a love for Morgana that he doesn’t feel so she’ll protect him from Alcina’s transmogrifying wrath. In a playful moment in the production available on Cennarium, we see Melisso pantomime a warning to “Ricciardo” not to tell Morgana that he loves her—a warning ignored. It’s a cynical gambit intended by “Ricciardo” for self-preservation; the purity of Morgana’s delight as she sings almost reads to the audience as irony. Almost—because the aria’s sheer charm, the beauty and virtuosity of the ornaments, the depth of the emotional satisfaction that Veronica Cangemi imbues in her performance, are all enough to make even the most sophisticated opera fan believe in the innocence and joy of Morgana’s version of love.
Alcina, who thrives on fake love, is undone by true love. In the production on Cennarium, Anja Harteros’ characterization of the sorceress is brilliant. Compare the self-assurance and sexiness of her Alcina moving through space during “Si, son quella!” (“I am still the same!”), when her power over Ruggiero is undiminished, to the less fluid, clumsier physicality after she loses power over her lover in “Ah, mio cor!” (Oh, my heart!). Harteros begins this latter aria on the floor, supine. The opera’s entire narrative shifts when Alcina realizes that her enchantment has been broken—and that she is a victim of her own unexpected, true love for Ruggiero. Her magic fails her in that moment, but lingers on for the audience as the character delivers one of the most heartrending, gorgeous arias in the European operatic canon.
Although she’ll ultimately end up with Oronte, when Morgana says “I will love whom I choose” in the first act, she is announcing the central theme of Alcina as each character takes a circuitous journey to arrive at whom to love. For Ruggiero, it was a journey back to his forgotten fiancée; for Alcina, it was the discovery that, while she could manipulate the men she was happy to toy with, she was never in control when the besotted lover was herself.
Beck Feibelman is an art historian and cultural critic. He writes about art, performance and opera. He is an editor at The Clyde Fitch Report. Look for him on Twitter (@feibelman), Instagram (@beckfeibelman) and Facebook.