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Handel - Alcina

Duration:
1 hour
First broadcast:
Saturday 27 November 2010

Lucie Skeaping continues the Early Music Show's series of opera profiles by delving into the music and history surrounding Handel's "Alcina". Based on the epic poem by Ariosto, the libretto by Antonio Marchi provided Handel with some very intense dramatic opportunities, including star-crossed lovers, dark magic and madness.

Alcina was composed for Handel's first season at London's Covent Garden Theatre, and it premiered on April 16, 1735. Like many of the composer's other serious stage works, it fell into general obscurity; after a revival in Brunswick in 1738 it was not performed again until a production in Leipzig nearly two centuries later, in 1928. It has now become one of Handel's most popular operas.

Lucie Skeaping talks to the American harpsichordist and musical director Alan Curtis at his home in Florence, who recorded Alcina in 2007 with his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco. That recording also starred Joyce DiDonato in the title role and Karina Gauvin as her sister Morgana (the role that was originally written for Thomas Arne's wife, Cecila Young).

Music Played

8 items
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (overture)

    Performers: Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (Di' cor mio, quanto t'amai)

    Performers: Joyce DiDonato (Alcina), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (Ma quando tornerai)

    Performers: Joyce DiDonato (Alcina), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (Verdi prati)

    Performers: Maite Beaumont (Ruggiero), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (Act II, Scene 13)

    Performers: Joyce DiDonato (Alcina), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (Questo e il cielo di contenti - Act I, Scene 2)

    Performers: Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (Chi m'insegna il caro padre)

    Performers: Laura Cherici (Oberto), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • Image for George Frideric Handel

    George Frideric Handel Alcina (Mi restano le lagrime)

    Performers: Joyce DiDonato (Alcina), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (director)

    ARCHIV, 477 7374

  • CHARACTERS

    Alcina (soprano) – queen and enchantress
    Ruggiero (soprano)
    Bradamante (alto) – betrothed to Ruggiero
    Melisso (bass) – guardian of Bradamante
    Morgana (soprano) – Alcina’s sister
    Oronte (tenor) – Alcina’s general and lover of Morgana
    Oberto (soprano) – son of the Paladin Astolfo

  • SYNOPSIS

    ACT ONE

    After the overture, the curtain rises on a clearing, surrounded by steep hills. Bradamante, disguised as a soldier, comes in wearily. She and her tutor Melisso have been searching for her lover Ruggiero, who disappeared mysteriously some time ago. Now they are approached by Morgana, sister of the famous enchantress Alcina. Morgana, immediately attracted to the supposed young “soldier”, explains to the travellers that they have arrived on the shores of Alcina’s realm and will shortly be received by the Queen.

    Immediately the landscape is transformed into a palace, where Alcina is seen with her latest lover – Ruggiero! He fails to recognise Bradamante as his bride, taking her to be indeed her own soldier brother, Ricciardo. Left alone, Bradamate and Melisso meet the young Oberto, whose father has also disappeared without trace in Alcina’s kingdom.

    A diversion is created by Oronte – commander of Alcina’s forces, and Morgana’s lover. He has come to confront the supposed youth who has attracted his mistress: the scene ends as Bradamante rebukes both him and Morgana.

    In the ante-chamber to Alcina’s apartments, Ruggiero sings of his love for the enchantress. Oronte, jilted by Morgana, comforts himself by taking revenge on Ruggiero. He explains that Alcina transforms her discarded lovers into stones, statues and wild beasts – soon it may be Ruggiero’s turn, since, he suggests, the Queen is already taking an interest in the new arrival “Ricciardo”. Ruggiero confronts Alcina, and accuses her of treachery: surprised and indignant, for she has truly fallen in love with him, Alcina stalks out. Bradamante then comes to reproach her erring lover, but he still thinks she is Ricciardo and a quarrel ensues. The tutor, Melisso, intervenes and Ruggiero leaves furiously to persuade Alcina to transform the troublesome Ricciardo into a wild beast.

    Morgana warns her attractive “Ricciardo” of this. At this point the 1735 and 1736 versions of the opera differ; in the 1735 version, “Ricciardo” exits, leaving Morgana to sing the aria ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, expressing the wish that they could be wooing. In the 1736 version, both Ricciardo and Morgana leave, and Alcina enters to sing the aria ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ which in these circumstances is an expression of regret over Ruggiero’s senseless jealousy.

    ACT TWO

    The first scene is a magnificent room in the palace, where Ruggiero sings longingly of Alcina. Melisso enters, disguised as Ruggiero’s own former tutor, and rebukes him for his wayward behaviour. Then, with the help of a magic ring, he reveals the palace to be in fact an arid desert, and finally he restores Ruggiero’s memory. When Bradamante arrives, Ruggiero, recognising her at last, begs her to forgive him; but she is not yet prepared to do this, and leaves him miserably alone.

    The scene changes to the palace gardens. Alcina is preparing to transform “Ricciardo” into a wild beast, when Morgana hastily enters to prevent her. Ruggiero, too, now adds his pleas for Ricciardo’s reprieve. Alcina agrees, and then the youth Oberto comes in, still lamenting the disappearance of his father. Alcina promises him somewhat ambiguously that he will soon see his father, but then Oronte rushes in to tell Alcina that Ruggiero has escaped from the palace. Alcina hurries away to her magic chamber.

    Morgana and Oronte have a sharp exchange of words, and when they have left, Bradamante and Ruggiero enter, trying to find their way out of Alcina’s kingdom. They make their escape, but not before they have been seen by Morgana.

    In the underground chamber where she weaves her magic spells, Alcina calls on the spirits of darkness to help prevent her lover’s escape. But there is no response. For once, Alcina has truly fallen in love, and consequently her magic powers are waning. She leaves angrily, and the act ends with a ballet performed by shades and spirits.

    ACT THREE

    The third act begins with a scene in the entrance to the palace, at night. Morgana is now trying to win back her lover, Oronte, but he refuses to listen to her, although, he confesses later, he still loves her.

    Ruggiero unfortunately encounters Alcina, who first pleads then threatens him. When she has, Bradamante and Melisso appear, bringing news that the island is completely surrounded by Alcina’s forces. Melisso, however, summons both Pegasus and the Gorgon’s shield to their aid, and soon Oronte has to report to Alcina that his forces can no longer hold out against Ruggiero. Alcina unhappily longs for death.

    The final scene of the opera is the grounds outside the palace; all around are caged wild beasts, statues, obelisks and, in the centre of a clearing, the urn which holds Alcina’s magic powers. Oberto reminds Alcina of her promise to let him see his father again. Her answer to his request is to release a lion from its cage and tell Oberto to kill the beast. But the youth, realising that this is his father, turns his spear towards Alcina herself.

    At this moment, Ruggiero and Bradamante appear. Alcina protests her innocence, but the lovers swear they will show no mercy, and Ruggiero smashes the magic urn. Alcina and Morgana disappear, while the entire landscape is swallowed up by the ocean, leaving only a desolate shore. A host of stones and wild beasts return to their human shape, and the opera ends in general rejoicing.

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