opened at Covent Garden Theatre on 16 April 1735, the last new production of Handel’s first season at the theatre. It had an impressive run of eighteen performances, extending the season to the beginning of July. The participation of the French dancer Marie Sallé and her company, for whom Handel provided some of his most delectable ballet music, was an important attraction, but the quality of the work as a whole was undoubtedly the main reason for its success. In the demanding title role Strada’s vocal and dramatic capabilities were fully stretched. The libretto is loosely based on Cantos 6 and 7 of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso
. Alcina is a sorceress who lures heroes to her magic island and turns them into animals or other shapes. Her latest capture is the knight Ruggiero, who is enjoying the delights of the island and has forgotten his fiancée Bradamante. She, however, intends to find him and win him back, and, in the company of Ruggiero’s old tutor Melisso, has arrived on the island disguised as her own brother. In Act 2 Melisso uses a magic ring to show Ruggiero that the beauties of the island are all illusory, and he and Bradamante convince Ruggiero to escape with them. Alcina learns of Ruggiero’s betrayal (as she sees it) and determines to use her magic powers to prevent him leaving. The final scene of the act is set in the underground vault where Alcina casts her spells. This time, however, her spirits refuse to obey her, perhaps—though this is never stated explicitly—because her genuine love for Ruggiero prevents her from harming him. The scene takes the form of a magnificent accompanied recitative and an aria. Alcina’s desperation is underlined by strange harmonic shifts near the beginning of the recitative: they are derived from a passage in Bononcini’s opera Il Xerse
, but are highly effective in their new context. Sinuous running figures dominate the aria, sometimes in the treble, sometimes in the bass. They suggest the shadowy spirits that hover around Alcina, and the persistent minor-key mood expresses her resignation to fate.
from notes by Anthony Hicks © 2000