Alcina, RAM, Round Chapel, Hackney | reviews, news & interviews
Alcina, RAM, Round Chapel, Hackney
Alcina, RAM, Round Chapel, Hackney
Strong singing gets lost in this missed opportunity of a production
Handel’s Alcina is about sex, certainly. But unlike Olivia Fuchs’s new production for the Royal Academy of Music, it’s about an awful lot of other things as well. Power, illusion, ageing, love, gender, family, intimacy – all these themes find themselves transformed on Alcina’s magical island, reworked by the end into ideas that are altogether darker and more complicated. But there’s nothing complicated about this vision. Stylish and conceptually clever, it’s a production that literally strips down to its skimpies in the first five minutes and grinds its interesting bits in your face, leaving precious little to reveal over the remaining two and a half hours.
Fuchs transforms Hackney’s Round Chapel into a fetish club – the suggestively named “Amnesio”. A circular island of a stage is suspended in a sea of oversized balloons (echoes of the Royal Opera’s 2010 Niobe), glowing neon-bright under Jake Wiltshire’s lighting scheme. Queuing to enter are a motley collection of punks and goths, all piercings, latex, faux-fur and fuck-me boots in Yannis Thavoris’s exuberant designs. Alcina’s magical hold over them becomes clear in a vivid coke-snorting episode, and only Red Bull can bring these coked-up slaves to pleasure back to their senses.
The result in such a booming church acoustic is perpetual clattering, clomping and slamming
As an opening gambit it’s an interesting one, but Fuchs does little with it, forced over the course of a deftly cut few hours to repeat actions again and again, desperately filling time on this tricky stage space. Steeply raked and full of trap doors, the stage becomes a battleground for young singers, who must negotiate its steep surface in all kinds of unhelpful footwear and uncooperative clothing, all while trying to impress vocally. The result in such an unhelpfully booming church acoustic (why programme an opera in here at all, with so many more conventional theatres on offer?) is perpetual clattering, clomping and slamming, obliterating much of the music. The beautiful violin solo in Morgana’s “Ama, sospira” was crushed underfoot, and an extended episode of newspaper ripping in Bradamante’s “Vorrei vendicarmi” all but did for that aria too.
The whole affair felt downright unkind to young singers, whose professional showcase this is. Instead of a powerful, seductive enchantress, Meinir Wyn Roberts’s Alcina looked like an awkward teenager in borrowed clothes, going through the motions of grinding, stripping and seducing but without conviction or emotion. Vocally she seemed rattled, and it took until after the interval (bizarrely placed just before Alcina’s “Ah! Mio cor”, denying Roberts any emotional run-up to this extended lament) for intonation and delivery to settle. Once they did, however, things improved enormously, revealing a generous voice to come.
Much more consistent were Lorena Paz Nieto’s minxy Morgana (pictured above) – all effervescent coloratura and attitude – and Emma Stannard’s Ruggiero. Stannard’s is a warm and wonderfully even mezzo, with a muscularity that made much of this confused young man’s many identities. Forced to wear a motorcycle helmet for “Sta nell’Ircana” (who would so wilfully diminish the resonance of a singer going up against two solo horns?), she summoned all her swagger to push through. William Blake impressed as the faithful Oronte, and Richard Walshe made a strong impression in the bit-part of Melisso.
Speeds throughout were frisky, risking a loss of clarity and line in this unhelpful acoustic, and it took Iain Ledingham’s strings a long while to gel, not helped, presumably, by the ambient temperature of an unheated venue. To have so much vocal talent and squander it in a venue so ill-designed for opera seems a wilful decision on the part of the Royal Academy. Yes this Alcina looks good, but if it can’t be heard clearly then it rather defeats the object.
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