Joyce DiDonato in 'Alcina' at the Barbican, London
Joyce DiDonato in 'Alcina' at the Barbican, London

A triumvirate of mezzo-sopranos, each of them a consummate Handelian, each in the prime of their career, heightened anticipation ahead of this touring concert performance of Alcina. That, and news that Joyce DiDonato, as the sorceress Alcina, would be showcasing a new Vivienne Westwood frock – metallic, asymmetric, suitably phantasmagoric. But DiDonato, along with Christine Rice (playing the cross-dressing Bradamante) and Alice Coote (as her betrothed, Ruggiero) are merely the star attractions in a supremely stylish production led by Harry Bicket and The English Concert.

First performed in 1735, Alcina enjoyed immediate success with the London public: the narrative, taken from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, is fussy and complex but the opera is rich with drama. This might have been a concert performance, but from the moment Alcina and Ruggiero arrived centre stage for “Di’ cor mio” – with arms entangled and an exchange of lustful looks – it was clear these singers were going to give it their all. In fact, at times, the evening resembled a kind of sing-off, with soloists taking turns to up the ante with an affecting interpretation or a daring choice of da capo ornaments before returning, triumphant, to their seats.

Anna Christy sang a glittering Morgana, her bright soprano enhanced with tasteful vibrato, and Anna Devin was impressive as Oberto. The male roles were slightly overshadowed here but Ben Johnson and Wojtek Gierlach provided strong support as Oronte and Melisso. Meanwhile, The English Concert, directed by Bicket at the harpsichord, was on glorious form, and there were exquisite solos from cellist Joseph Crouch and lead violinist Nadja Zwiener.

As for those mezzos, well, you could hardly wish for more. Rice (the only one of the three yet to release a Handel compilation – can this be rectified soon, please?) sang Bradamante with thrilling animation, while Coote – agile, measured – was a dark and intense Ruggiero. And DiDonato gave the title role seductive malice, together with a voice of radiant beauty, and a dazzling technical display, from a heart-stopping messa di voce at the repeat in “Ah! Mio cor!” to the fireworks in “Ma quando tornerai”. Catch this if you can.

Touring to Madrid, Vienna, Paris and New York, englishconcert.co.uk

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