Handel's Alcina - an operatic fantasy of sorceresses, cross-dressing warriors and men turned into animals - needs no "Here be dragons" warning to proclaim its thrills and perils. Virtuosic vocal writing, an elaborate set of ballet interludes and a rather touching proto-feminist take on female power all make for a glorious theatrical experience, yet often fail to translate to the concert platform. Marc Minkowski however - baroque's original musical magus - drew Saturday's Barbican audience entirely under his thrall, conjuring delight and wonder that were anything but illusory.
Listening to an ensemble like Minkowski's Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, it quickly becomes clear that the mark of a great period orchestra is not the start of a note - the explicit moment of attack or caress - nor even its shaping and phrasing, but how it is finished. A default tailing-off into silence is fine until you hear the decisive choices of a group such as this. Nothing is left to chance here, not even silence, and the impact is immediate. This is tidy playing, but with none of the petty, fussy bureaucracy that that implies: music aggressively, scorchingly pristine.
Keeping his huge band (a violin section of 18 set the curve) immaculately balanced, Minkowski ensured that the colours of Handel's writing were never sacrificed for power. A duet of avuncular bassoons, two cooing recorders and some delicate moments from the oboe all emerged in their turn, though all were eclipsed by leader Thibault Noally's obbligato solo for Morgana's lovely "Ama, sospira".
With Anja Harteros unwell, the title role was taken at short notice by Inga Kalna, a veteran of the part and a soprano diva of the best and most old-school breed. Her maturity (both of age and voice) lent a certain poignancy to proceedings; she was never going to be the mercurial seductress of some productions, but as a woman whose magical powers can command her anything but true love, she was touchingly convincing. A controlled Act I gave way to the explosive release of "Ombre Pallide" and eventually to the collapse husk of "Ah Mio Cor" - a miracle of filigree, fairy-spun head-voice.
Matching Kalna for vocal control was Veronica Cangemi's Morgana. Darker of tone than is usual for this flighty, exuberant soprano role, she concealed the slightly uncomfortable range with unusual ornamentation and a rather inward, mezza-voce delivery. While this worked astonishingly well for the long lines of "Credete al mio dolor" it failed to generate the virtuosic display of everyone's-favourite-showstopper "Tornami a vagheggiar", leaving her without much of a character arc.
In a cast of slightly underwhelming men, it was boy soprano Shintaro Nakajima's Oberto who dominated. More often sung by a woman, it's a role that makes no concession to youthful technique, and simply cannot be sacrificed to mere novelty. Nakajima, a member of the Vienna Boys' Choir, handled his four arias like the man that he is still so many years from becoming. Pitch and control were beyond criticism, and his efficient coloratura for "Barbara!" would be the envy of many sopranos.
Whether you loved or hated her (and there were noisy champions for both camps) the evening was all about mezzo Vesselina Kasarova. In the trouser role of Ruggiero she stalked the stage with the ferocity of the tiger she so memorably evoked for "Sta nell'Ircarna". All facial contortions and independently animated limbs, she is almost unwatchable, yet has a power in her mid-range coloratura that defies the explanation of conventional technique. While the syncopated jazzing of "Sta nell'Ircana" sizzled under such conditions, moments of simple, uninterrupted melody proved her undoing. Both "Verdi prati" and "Mi Lusinga il dolce affetto" were casualties, with line and reliable pitch entirely absent, and the less said about the swooping and vamping of her recitative the better.
When you think back just a few months to the Hindenburg disaster that was the Royal Opera's Tamerlano (or even the comfortably adequate Radamisto at English National Opera) the comparison to Minkowski's Alcina is enough to make you weep. That this sensational show (adapted from a fully-staged European production) should not only be exiled to the concert platform, but restricted to a single night's performance, is absurd. Thank goodness then for the Barbican's Orlando Furioso opera series, which continues into 2011 with offerings from the likes of Ensemble Matheus and Il Complesso Barocco. I for one have already booked my tickets.