Now in its 14th year, the Grimeborn Opera Festival returns at the Arcola Theatre’s new outdoor space, Arcola Outside. Almost a year and a half after the act of singing was largely prohibited due to the pandemic, Arcola Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen felt thrilled to host the Grimeborn programme in their new and safe outdoor theatre. In its fourth outing at the festival, London-based Ensemble OrQuesta returns with a contemporary treatment of Handel’s compelling opera of desire, power and rage.
Written in the 18th century by the German-British Baroque composer, the opera seria’s story was originally taken from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. The original story is set in enchantress Alcina’s island where she rules a magnificent palace full of former lovers and muses that she’s lured under a spell. One of these is Ruggiero, a warrior, who under Alcina’s spell has forsaken his duty and his betrothed, Bradamante, who has now come to Alcina’s land disguised as her brother Ricciardo to rescue Ruggiero, along with her former tutor Melisso. They intend to break the spell which binds Ruggiero to Alcina, and to release her other captives, who have been variously transformed into tame beasts and yes men. Then there is Alcina’s sister Morgana, herself an enchantress, who has fallen in love with Ricciardo (and later discovers him to be Bradamante in disguise) and must grapple with her own romantic fallouts. Ensemble OrQuesta’s creative team admits in their production note that staging the opera in its original, 18th-century fantastical world might have felt dated and out of reach for contemporary audiences, which is why they decided to set their version of Handel’s opera in a modern-day office setting where Alcina is the boss and her magical powers are ‘the professional authority she exercises over her employees and the sexual domination she deploys over younger inexperienced co-workers”. Their production is inspired by the global #MeToo movement with a deliberate focus on female power figures, inviting the audience to see the story’s central conflict as larger issues of power and status that transcend gender, age and experience.
The ensemble of performers and musicians deliver a compelling performance that captures our attention all throughout, highlighting the pivotal relationships and subtle tensions that accentuate the story. Helen May’s portrayal of Alcina draws us in slowly, balancing the enchantress’ growing vulnerability and rage as she grapples with betrayal. Maya Wheeler-Colwell’s Bradamente is determined and resolute, standing her ground in the face of divine adversity. Laura Fleur’s Ruggiero is able to bring out his inner obsession (and subsequent fear) of Alcina’s power. In other strong performances by the on-stage ensemble, it’s Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada’s Morgana that stands out completely, highlighting the character’s innately playful, alluring charm that turns into fury and desperation once she discovers she’s been betrayed. Apart from directing the stage action, Director Marcio da Silva also leads a talented team of musicians that treat us to Handel’s moving melodies, setting the rhythm and mood for much of the dramatic action. The use of white paint as a visual representation of Alcina’s spell on her lovers offers a powerful scenographic element but doesn’t quite fit the modern-day office setting. The movements, costumes and set design are minimal, which allow us to focus our attention entirely on the vocal performances, but risks reducing the choice of adaptation to a purely theoretical exercise, as there is still room for a lot of physical action and moments between the lines to better visualize the power dynamics and abuse in modern-day toxic work environments.
To summarize, Ensemble OrQuesta’s Alcina is a rich exploration of Handel’s opera with strong music performances and an appreciable contemporary treatment, the latter allowing us to view the work from a more accessible lens and reminding us that the interplay of rage, power and desire continue to dominate the conversation in today’s workplaces.
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 25th August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★
You can watch Alcina under the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Outside E8 3DL until 29th August 2021. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/alcina/