HANDEL opera is nowadays regarded as territory for specialist performers. So the odd eyebrow was raised, mine included, when Ryedale Festival announced Alcina as its sole operatic offering this year.

The work dawned on modern consciousness when Joan Sutherland recorded its fiery title role in the 1960s. She was, of course, stunning, if wordless. But you would not associate the part with a young singer near the start of her career. It also demands deft period instrumentalists. Incredibly, Ryedale turned up trumps on both counts.

The orchestra deserves top billing. This was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) Experience Ensemble, nine players chosen from all over Europe to enhance their skills with the OAE’s seasoned pros. They might have been the OAE itself: a string quintet with bass, two oboes (one doubling on recorder), bassoon and harpsichord, all extremely proficient.

Hed Yaron Mayersohn led them with brilliance, Ian Tindale conducted crisply from the harpsichord. Cellist Carla Rovirosa Guals’s sensationally soulful obbligato to an equally succulent aria by Robyn Allegra Parton (Morgana) made it the evening’s highlight.

Cherise Lagasse had all the moves in the acidulous title role, if not quite the final polish. When engaged in rapid coloratura, her accurate tone was exactly right; at slower tempos she was inclined to overblow, as if in a larger arena. Parton’s lighter soprano contrasted well. Timothy Morgan’s smoothly controlled countertenor Ruggiero eventually teamed with Maria Ostroukhova’s Bradamente, a rare real contralto of exceptional flexibility. Joel Williams’s tenor Oronte and Jerome Knox’s bass Melisso also made telling contributions.

The singers were clearly comfortable with Nina Brazier’s understated production, and after the interval they invested John Warrack’s fine new translation with the clarity it deserved. These new Handelians are a vintage crop.