Katie Mitchell is a director who divides her audience. Some champion the probing psychology of her shows, their meticulous, realist visuals, their staunchly feminist agenda. Others balk at what they see as a prefab, one-size-fits-all approach. But whatever your camp, when Mitchell finds a show to suit her inherent sympathies the result is unassailable. This Alcina, originally staged for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival, is the director at her very best – a marriage of concept and psychology so instinctive, so exhilarating in its invention, that it’s impossible to imagine it bettered.
Unpacking the limits of power in all its forms – love, magic, violence, authority – Handel’s opera is one of his most probing emotional portraits, and a piece ripe for Mitchell’s gaze. She pulls back the curtain on Alcina’s sorcery, revealing the blunt, unpalatable mechanisms behind her illusions, showing us the woman not the witch. Chloe Lamford’s designs place us in a decaying doll’s house of a set. Rooms are spread over two floors, but only the central salon is fully lit. Within this magic space Alcina (Patricia Petibon) and Morgana (Anna Prohaska) seduce and subdue their lovers, glorying in their youth and beauty. But as soon as they step beyond the doorways into the decaying outer rooms they are transformed into their true, ageing selves – a visual sleight of hand skillfully aided by actresses Juliet Alderdice and Jane Thorne.
The pathos is heightened by a superb ensemble cast, supported by Andrea Marcon and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Prohaska, far from the conventionally perky, pretty Morgana, offers a performance both dramatically and vocally richer and more complicated, crowned by a troubling abuse-fantasy of a Tornami a vagheggiar. Petibon deploys her signature vocal histrionics to good effect, offset by the simplicity and directness of Anthony Gregory’s Oronte. Jaroussky’s foppish Ruggiero also confounds expectations, allowing mezzo Katarina Bradic´ to dominate the relationship with her superb technique and thick-spread tone.
Handel’s opera may be fantastical but it tells some cruel truths about human weakness and desire. Mitchell’s staging looks past the gauzy melodies and gorgeous orchestral writing, revealing the skull beneath the musical skin.