Though John Caird, an honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is credited with the staging, this is essentially a concert presentation of Handel’s bewitching Alcina: the singers are in evening dress and most of them are using their scores.
The work itself is shorn of its recitatives and of one of its characters (Oronte), and surtitles are absent. What it does have is a starry narrator, Joanna Lumley. Relishing June Chichester’s florid explanatory text, she too often plays for chuckles – there is a dark, bleak side to this opera – and risks stealing the singers’ (and Handel’s) thunder.
Before each aria she lip-smackingly elucidates its context and content – through a microphone, what’s more. The audience’s appetite is not so much whetted as partially sated. Fortunately, the cast more than holds its own, though some of the singing feels under-scaled for the lofty St John’s Smith Square.
As the titular enchantress, Lucy Crowe sings with beauty, imagination and pinpoint accuracy, even if she is more ingenue than temperamental femme fatale, while countertenor Patrick Terry as Ruggiero is at his exquisite best in the lilting Verdi Prati.
Rebecca Bottone charms irresistibly as Morgana and Madeleine Shaw is a formidably spirited Bradamante. The most eloquent use of the Italian text comes from Christopher Turner, a cultivated, full-voiced Oronte, and William Berger, sterling as Melisso.
In arias featuring obbligato instruments, the players of La Nuova Musica get to share the limelight with the singer, and conductor David Bates favours elegance and warmth while pulling out the stops at moments of high drama.