Handel’s 1735 opera Alcina, based on the Renaissance epic poem Orlando Furioso, tells of Alcina and Morgana, two witch sisters who live together on an island. It is Alcina’s custom first to seduce the men who are washed up on her shores, then magically change them into animals when she tires of them. The newest arrival is the young soldier Ricciardo, who by good fortune meets Morgana rather than her malign sister; she is so struck by him that she jilts her established lover, Oronte, in his favor. Slight snag: Ricciardo is actually a woman, Bradamante, come to the island in male guise in pursuit of her own young man, Ruggiero, who has in turn fallen for Alcina and she for him. Morgana learns that Alcina plans to show her love for Ruggiero by using her powers of transformation on ‘Ricciardo’; in an aria, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, she warns him to flee, and mistakes his reluctance to do so as an indication that her love for him is reciprocated. But all comes well in the end: Ruggiero frees himself from Alcina’s influence and he and Bradamante escape the island by destroying the source of her power; even the discarded, metamorphosed lovers are restored to human form.
So in short, it’s an opera that centers on a pair of promiscuous women. What brings it into our orbit is Katie Mitchell’s production for the 2015 Aix-en-Provence festival, with Katarina Bradic as Bradamante and Anna Prohaska as Morgana, whose sexuality was characterized in a particular way that may be inferred from this illustration of her and Bradamante:
The first thing she does upon meeting ‘Ricciardo’ is to take her clothes off, and she spends the rest of the scene in her underwear, a black silk slip over white bra and panties (though you’ll have to be eagle-eyed to spot the latter). Her second action is to have herself tied to the bed, hand and foot, and tickled with a feather duster. Yes, this Morgana is kinky. In their next scene alone together, the ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ scene, she ups the ante and introduces a riding crop,
and poor Bradamante doesn’t really understand what she’s expected to do with it, though she gets the hang of it eventually:
Here’s the scene:
Later on, when she has accepted that her relationship with Bradamante is going nowhere (their shared gender being an insuperable barrier), she tries to reestablish her relationship with Oronte in a scene which, with this characterization, resembles Zerlina asking to be spanked in Don Giovanni. (It’s another role that Anna Prohaska has played, incidentally.) She takes off his belt and turns it into a pair of makeshift handcuffs; then out come the blindfold and riding crop, and a second aria is sung to the accompaniment of a sound whacking. It seems the relationship is restored.
You can watch the whole production here. One online reviewer summed up its defining pleasure as ‘Anna Prohaska getting her bottom smacked’. Well, you can’t say fairer than that!