If it doesn't do the mostly static and uneventful nature of Handel's 1735 opera any favours, it's at least appropriate that director Adrian Noble chooses to stage this production for the Weiner Staatsoper entirely within the ballroom of a stately house. Alcina does indeed feel small and intimate - some might say dry and mechanical - the kind of entertainment put on for the amusement of a gathering of nobles at an 18th century dinner party. That's not exactly high-concept, but it's about as adventurous as you're going to get for a rare performance of a Baroque opera at the Vienna State Opera, and if it doesn't do much for the opening up of Alcina, it at least recognises its limitations and, under the baton of the excellent Marc Minkowski, it's about as good an account of the opera as you could expect.
The play within a play concept is only really nominally adhered to, the overture used to set the occasion within Devonshire House, where Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and some guests (you would only know this from the production notes) put on a performance that perhaps appeals to or reflects their nature. The Duchess becomes the sorceress Alcina, who enchants men and then casts them off, changing them into wild beasts, trees or ghosts, left to roam her island. Her latest conquest is Ruggiero, who is unaware of his fate, but when his betrothed Bradamante (disguised as a man, Ricciardo) and Melisso, her tutor, come to rescue him, Alcina recognises that she may indeed have real feelings for him. There are a few additional complications and the usual identity problems with trouser roles to come to terms with and the fact that Adrian Noble's production has historical figures playing these roles, but it's not as complex as it sounds. The dramatic action is limited and the emotional content isn't that deep, the endless da capo arias expressing no profound wisdom or inner turmoil and no noble sentiments beyond simple expressions of love, rejection and love again, repetitively back and forth as awareness of identities and natures are revealed. Essentially, it's a case of the power of true love prevailing.
Drawn out to three and a half-hours, those sentiments can become rather tedious after a while, but while Alcina isn't the greatest Handel opera and is fairly static and limited in its dramatic situation, its overall construction is carefully considered and it's worth persevering with for the some wonderful moments and beautiful arrangements that arise out of it as a whole. The staging and performances from the orchestra and the singers all ensure that those qualities come through. Marc Minkowski's conducting of the Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble is wonderful, finding the rhythmic centre of the score, the whole ensemble bright, vivid and dynamic, but with a delicate touch to individual instruments which are picked out beautifully in the sound mix. The single greatest thing about the choice of staging is the use of a small core of musicians on the stage creating a wonderful connection in their accompaniment of the singers.
Vesselina Kasarova, demonstrates a remarkable range from deep notes to high coloratura seemingly effortlessly as Ruggiero. Her delivery and acting can be slightly mannered and even distracting, perhaps on account of playing a male role, but I don't think the Vienna audience give her the credit she deserves here. Kristina Hammarströmn is a good Bradamante and Anja Harteros fine as Alcina, if a little lacking in character. There are a few off-notes here and there, but her Act II aria "Ah! Mio cor! Schernito sei!" is one of several beautiful Handel compositions here and sung very well. As Oberto, Alois Mühlbacher thankfully adds some variety to the voices and the repetitive romantic declarations and expressions of disappointment in rejection. The Blu-ray disc looks and sounds marvellous, with PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 96kHz/24bit audio tracks. The sumptuous staging is finely detailed and extraordinarily colourful and, other than the use of fades and one lapse of rapid cross-cutting, the filming is fine. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean and a twenty-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is included.