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Fifty Shades of Handel

directed by Katie Mitchell
conducted by Andrea Marcon
Festival d'årt Lyrique 
d'Aix en Provence

Alcina is not keen on free love.  She prefers to treat her former lovers with chemicals and put them through a kind of baggage control machine which spits them out as stuffed animals.


When she is not busy with taxidermy, Alcina and her sidekick Morgana like to dabble in erotic games and bondage with their future ornaments.


For her new production in the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Katie Mitchell has produced a fantasy updating of cinematic opulence for Handel's 1735 opera.


Part Fifty Shades, part Eyes Wide Shut, with a sprinkling of Dorian Gray, Mitchell's staging takes Handel's magic at face value.  The set shows us the central bedroom (sets: Chloe Lamford), in which Alcina and her offsider Morgana are beautiful young women. The magic only holds here. The minute they pass through enchanted doors to work-rooms on either side, they become old ladies (swapped artfully with actor doubles).  Delighted guffaws prove a collectively willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience; the sorcery works.


All this is watched and managed by a bevy of black-clad servants, who also play a role in forcing newcomers to participate in carnal play.  Only Oronte, who has not yet been put through the evil luggage device, can move between their worlds unaltered.


A thrust during the sexual act as an impulse for a high note or musical ornament: if Mitchell understood how over-used this gimmick is, she might have thought of something else. The first hour bumps and grinds its way through numerous da capo arias, sometimes aided by silken ropes and feather dusters, with wearying predictability.  Only as the protagonists begin to liberate themselves and the pace of the action picks up does Mitchell progress from the explicit to the implied, to the considerable benefit of the music.


A self-indulgent witch, Patricia Petibon milks the title role of every nuance.  She is still upstaged by Anna Prohaska, whose Morgana has enough freshness, spontaneity and bloom to charm any knight errant. Philippe Jaroussky sings with technical assurance and a steely edge as Ruggiero, Anthony Gregory's Oronte is lithe and limber, while Krzysztof Baczyk brings a welcome edge of earthy bravura to the militaristic role of Melisso.


Well fleshed out with extra strings for the voluminous theatre, the Freiburger Barockorchester plays with flair, energy, and an easy, open sound.  Andrea Marcon lets the phrases breathe, gives a lush continuo section room to unfold, and knows how to drive the pace forward without ever sounding forced.  These are all good things, and offer far more sensual pleasure than the simulated copulation in the early scenes.


This is a meticulously executed production, rich in detail, consummately polished. It goes on to Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.


Shirley Apthorp


photos | ©Patrick Berger

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