The music sparkles in Handel's opera Alcina at Llewellyn Hall in the ANU. The cast do it justice. There's not a weak link in an ensemble of very high quality voices. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra is a tight band, well-directed to underpin a coherent production of a difficult work.
Difficult because it's a baroque opera of complex absurdity. The plot is ridiculous and hard to follow - which may be why it was barely performed for two centuries after its first performances in 1735 in London and a revival in Dresden in 1738.
As the Artistic Director of National Opera puts it, quoting the composer himself, it's about "heartache, jealousy, suffering, fury, passion and adoration".
And so it is. There are disguises and deceptions. Nothing on the enchanted isle seems real.
At the centre is the sorceress Alcina (pronounced ahl-chee-nah). She's a minx who tires of her conquests and turns them into wild beasts or stone (as you would).
It would spoil the plot to say how it ends - but there is ruin and desolation for some and relief and joy for others. A lion appears. This is opera, after all.
The staging is sparse to the point where it is almost semi-staged - but that doesn't matter. Simplicity in a complexity of plot is good. And the staging works.
The singing and the orchestral playing is very good indeed. Just for the sublime music, it's a worthwhile night out. This production would be well received on any opera stage anywhere.
But - there's a but - why put on an opera buff's opera if you're a new company trying to bring in a new audience, an audience which may be prejudiced against what is often perceived as highfalutin opera with its elitist airs?
New opera companies have a dilemma: Boheme is better at getting bums on seats but Alcina is more interesting (and has much better music).
The trick no doubt is to find a middle way, bringing in audiences with old favourites but leading them on into more challenging works.
Other companies have done that but they've had money and support from government. There has been vision and backing from outside.
The Artistic Director of National Opera, Peter Coleman-Wright, has taken the high road. He's gone for interesting opera over the pop classics.
The company did Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito last year. It's the master's last opera and has some magnificent music but (to me at least) it doesn't fizz with drama. It is, again, an opera buff's opera, one which is interesting for cognoscenti but rarely produced.
National Opera is a heroic venture. Peter Coleman-Wright is an internationally-recognised singer who has performed in the world's big name opera houses, from the Met in New York to Covent Garden in London to La Scala in Milan. He is an asset to Canberra.
But his dilemma is where does he pitch the productions? At the highest in the land (the governor-general was there on Thursday) or at a broader audience?
Alcina was sung in Italian. Might opera in English be more accessible? (It should be said that the surtitles in this production aren't clear).
He promised that opera-goers would have a "great time" at Alcina, with some of the best soloists in Australia, a "fantastic designer", and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.
And opera goers did have a fantastic time at Llewellyn Hall on Thursday night. But it's the non-opera-goers I'm worried about.
How do we bring them in to enjoy such a marvellous form of art?
I was brought up in a tradition where opera was a democratic form. The Welsh National Opera (which I first saw at the age of ten) was built into a company with a global reputation over decades and on the premise that opera was for all - access to all arias, as a friend puts it.
It does Boheme now and again, and often in new ways, but it also puts on new work and older work reimagined radically for our times.
But it's been a slog. One thing WNO did have going for itself was a government that backed it, that believed in it, that believed in opera.
If you like good music (and that means everybody worth knowing), Alcina is as good as it gets.
And National Opera, very much including the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, does it full justice.
Go to the repeat performance on Saturday - but read the synopsis first.
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