Händel’s Alcina was the first Baroque opera ever to be performed in Hof, a small out-of-the-way city in the extreme northeast corner of Bavaria. I went there in 2018 not knowing what to expect, but I was completely convinced by the brilliant production and flawless performance of this “magic opera” (Zauberoper, as it was advertised in Hof) from the year 1735.
All you loyal readers of my post on the State Opera in Vienna might recall that I saw an impressive production of Händel’s Alcina in Vienna in 2016. The staging in Hof was completely different but equally brilliant, thanks especially to the presence of ten ballet dancers, five men and five women, who appeared in many of the scenes in a variety of roles, dancing in both contemporary and ballet styles to accompany the singing and the music.
I remember especially Badamente’s aria in which she apologizes profusely to Oronte for being unfaithful to him, with a beautiful violin accompaniment from the pit and a lovely dance sequence on stage. Most theaters don’t even have ballet companies any more, but Hof has twelve dancers in its ensemble, ten of whom appeared in Alcina (the other two presumably being kept in reserve in case of illness or injury).
The choreography, by ballet director Barbara Buser, was varied, inventive and always seemed to support the music and the drama, without ever getting in the way. Of the ten dancers, two pairs emerged who did classical-looking ballet sequences at appropriate times.
The stage set consisted mainly of a cylinder within a cylinder which could be opened and closed in various ways. The center was the inner sanctum where Alcina appeared, triumphant at first with her long dress and long claw-like fingernails but defeated at the end when the evil spirits, played by the dancers in ingenious gauze costumes, ignored her orders and just swirled around her instead. The inside of the cylinder was illuminated at times by an unusually subtle use of videos that just seemed to grow out of the lighting effects, so you never had the feeling ‘now they’re showing a video’.
The title role of the sorceress Alcina was played and sung by the German soprano Inga Lisa Lehr, in her eighth season as an ensemble member of the Theater Hof. The male lead was a guest singer, the Italian countertenor Antonio Geovannini in the role of the knight Ruggiero, who has been seduced by Alcina to keep him on her island and off the battlefield. (But Alcina makes the mistake of falling in love with him, leading to her downfall at the end of the opera.)
The conductor for this production was Daniel Spaw, an American in his first season as deputy music director in Hof. The stage director, set designer and costume designer was Hinrich Horstkotte, who has staged over sixty operas (mainly in Germany, but also in Austria and Taiwan) since 1998.
Alcina was one of Händel’s later operas, composed after he had been in the opera business for over a quarter century. That makes it 283 years old (as of 2018), but the story was based on an epic poem from two centuries earlier (Ariosto’s Orlando furioso) which was set in a time three hundred years before that, in the First Crusade of the late eleventh century. This is typical for Baroque operas: looking back from the present day to the creation of the opera, then to the writing of the poem and then to the time of the story, we are looking back nine hundred years or more into the misty past.
The word Hof in German has several meanings, for instance court or courtyard or farm or farmyard. The city of Hof seems to have got its name from the farming side, since it was never the seat of any kind of kingdom or duchy.
The composer Georg Friedrich Händel never set foot in Hof, as far as I know, but he was born and grew up in another city on the same river, namely Halle, which is well over a hundred km downstream (= north) on the Saale River.
During the decades of the division of Germany after the Second World War, Hof was in an extremely isolated position, since it was in West Germany but surrounded on three sides by impenetrable borders to East Germany or Czechoslovakia.
Even today, after the borders have opened up or disappeared, Hof is rather remote. To get there you have to change trains in Nürnberg and ride for nearly two hours on a regional express train.
The new theater in Hof was opened in 1994 and has 567 seats in the large hall. Most of the seats were occupied the night I was there, even though it was a Wednesday evening in July, which might not seem like an ideal time for filling a theater.
Before my opera visit I had been to Hof twice, once in 1999 to lead a workshop for the English teachers at the adult education center and once in 2002 to do a presentation of a new series of textbooks.
The theater in Hof is the sixty-first German opera house I have been to, as listed in my post Sixty-six opera houses in Germany.
Watch the trailer of Alcina at the Theater Hof.
My photos and text in this post are from 2018.
See also: Händel as an opera composer.