Alcina, Norwegian National Opera, Oslo – review

Slow TV is the latest Norwegian craze. Half the nation tuned in to watch a boat on a six-day journey through the fjords. An eight-hour knitting marathon proved equally enthralling. Almost nothing happened; that was the whole point.

Parts of the Norwegian National Opera’s new production of Alcina recall this trend, as clouds scud slowly across the backdrop of Louis Désiré’s set. Not that nothing happens – Alcina is full of action, and Francisco Negrin’s production has everything from flying lovers to a caged lion. His Alcina is a sorceress in the most literal sense, endowing her captive lovers with animal body parts and freezing opponents with a gesture. Stripped of her magic, she is bald, disfigured and furiously alone.

Oslo’s opera house, perched like an ice floe on the rim of the city’s snowbound waterfront, is almost enough of a magical experience on its own. The house has opted for further enchantment in the form of Norway’s Barokksolistene in the pit. This fleet young original-instrument ensemble brings the raw rhythms of Scandinavian folk music to its take on the high baroque, and couples that with the slick refinement of a generation that takes virtuosity on early instruments for granted.

Baroque opera should not, as purists will tell you, be conducted; for this production, violinist Bjarte Eike and harpsichordist Christopher Bucknall share the musical direction, with whatever gestures are necessary to keep the whole show together.

Of course, authenticity is a philosophical conundrum; for a start, Handel’s operas were never conceived for the vast spaces of a modern opera house. The Barokksolistene, bolstered with plenty of strings and a beefy continuo, have little difficulty in filling the house with expressive sound. Not all the cast fare as well. Nicole Heaston is an exception in the title role, in a performance that ranges from towering rage to aching grief, always moving, utterly in command of each note’s shading. Marius Roth Christensen’s robust Oronte is also compelling, and Johannes Weisser makes a convincing Melisso.

Negrin’s production makes little attempt to look below the surface of this most psychologically complex of operas, preferring grand gestures that occasionally lapse into unwitting comedy. When Alcina cradles the reindeer head of a captured lover in her lap, it is hard not to think of the talking moose in Fawlty Towers; and Ruggiero’s flying scene looks like Peter Pan gone wrong. The real insights come from the orchestra, from the easy grasp of instrumental rhetoric and the way each phrase is both shaped and propelled forwards.

Norway’s TV-watching public knows that the true drama of a fjord takes time to absorb, and that knitting has its own inherent drama. The same sense of patience and refinement is evident in every note of the Barokksolistene’s playing. This is Handel with a Scandinavian accent, and it is absolutely worth the journey.

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