A dark past weighs heavily on Alcina. She has lured countless men to her enchanted island, making them her lovers and then, once she has tired of them, transforming them into plants, rocks or wild beasts. Her latest victim Astolfo, for example, now lives out his existence as a lion. His successor is the young knight Ruggiero. At the start of the action of Alcina (1735), the third opera that Handel based on the Renaissance epic poem Orlando furioso by Ariosto, he has already completely fallen for the sorceress. But his betrothed Bradamante, whom he has forgotten together with his earlier life, has arrived with her former tutor Melisso in order to win back Ruggiero for herself. Disguised as a man, she pretends to be her own brother Ricciardo, thereby promptly arousing the love of Alcina’s sister Morgana. Bradamante’s false identity is only the first in a series of deliberate deceptions, of ‘inganni’ which drive wedges of uncertainty and mistrust between the figures.
The place in which ‘Ricciardo’ and Melisso are welcomed is the ‘Elysium of the Living’, a world of liberated emotions and sensuality, of pleasure and delight, heeding neither yesterday nor tomorrow. Who could resist? Ruggiero is enchanted by Alcina in both meanings of the word, as a woman and as a sorceress. But her spell is not invulnerable to counter-spells. When Melisso employs a carefully thought out strategy that is aimed at shaming Ruggiero, summoning the ‘pitiful warrior of love’ back onto the ‘noble path of glory’, all the splendour turns into a ‘horrid wasteland’. And Ruggiero realizes that he must turn away from Alcina and back to Bradamante, back to a love that places responsibility, faithfulness and a willingness to compromise above passion.
In Orlando furioso events are related wholly from Ruggiero’s perspective. When he leaves Alcina, whose youth and beauty are mere deception, Ariosto refers to her drastically as an ‘old whore’. However, even the libretto to Handel’s opera is far from regarding Alcina in a simplistically dualist sense as the epitome of seductive vice. The music ultimately imbues the text with a psychological complexity that relativizes any moral judgement. Apart from her (failing) magic powers, what interests Handel in Alcina is the private fate of an ageing woman who has arrived at a turning point. The volatile ‘amare e disamare’, the rapid switch between love and the withdrawal of love to which she was so long addicted, has now become foreign to her. For the feelings she experiences for Ruggiero are for the first time so intense that Alcina wants to preserve them forever. But this love — potentially a new departure — is what will break Alcina. On the path from carefree happiness to extreme despair she experiences an emotional spectrum that includes vulnerability, jealousy, fear and desperation as well as revolt, fury, scorn and vengeance. Alcina is one of the most powerful character portraits in Handel’s operatic cosmos.
For Ruggiero, it is not enough merely to flee from Alcina’s embrace; he must destroy her entire realm. Why? Because only in this way can the men transformed into plants, rocks and animals be released? Or is it an act of self-preservation? Because Alcina’s realm is an addictive place of escape — whether real or virtual — that makes a return to sober normality with its rules, values and role patterns increasingly impossible? Because here facets of his ego are revealed to Ruggiero that shatter his certainties and threaten the whole design of his life? Nothing makes the ambivalence of his decision clearer than the fact that Handel replaces a duet which the original libretto gives to the reunited couple Bradamante and Ruggiero with an aria — the most famous in this opera. In ‘Verdi prati’ Ruggiero takes his leave: in music of deceptive simplicity he invokes the beauties of Alcina’s island, full of yearning nostalgia and yet knowing that through him this realm is doomed.
Translation: Sophie Kidd