Friday, 11 March 2016

Time just flew by - Handel's Ariodante from London Handel Festival & Royal College of Music

Handel - Ariodante - London Handel Festival - photo Chris Christodoulou
Handel - Ariodante - London Handel Festival - photo Chris Christodoulou
Handel Ariodante; Kamilla Dunstan, Gemma Lois Summerfield, Marie Lys, Thomas Scott-Cowell, Thomas Erlank, Simphiwe Simon Shibambu, dir: James Bonas, cond: Laurence Cummings; London Handel Festival at the Britten Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 9 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Handel meets game of thrones in superbly confident and emotionally strong performance

Kamilla Dunstan - Handel - Ariodante - London Handel Festival - photo Chris Christodoulou
Kamilla Dunstan
photo Chris Christodoulou
London Handel Festival's annual staging of a Handel opera in collaboration with the Royal College of Music International Opera School has reached Handel's Ariodante (their 24th Handel staging), a run of lesser known works. In 2014 they performed Arianna in Creta, and Ariodante was written a years later and both operas featured the mezzo-soprano castrato Carestini. We caught the performance on 9 March 2016 at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre, the first outing of the alternative cast with Kamilla Dunstan as Ariodante, Gemma Lois Summerfield as Ginevra, Marie Lys as Dalinda, Thomas Scott-Cowell as Polinesso, Thomas Erlank as Lurcanio, Simphiwe Simon Shibambu as the King and Joel Williams as Odoardo. The production was directed by James Bonas (who directed The Tales of Hoffman for English Touring Opera in 2015), designed by Molly Einchcomb with lighting by Rob Casey. Laurence Cummings conducted the London Handel Orchestra.

Ariodante is set in mythic Scotland and requires a setting where duelling as a means of settling honour disputes is convincing. David Alden's 1996 production at English National Opera showed that this sensibility can be combined with a challenging investigation of the underlying psychological disturbance in the plot, particularly when it comes to the treatment of Ginevra who is accused of being unchaste without being allowed to put her point of view, and at the end is expected to return happily to the former status quo.

Bonas and Einchcomb seem to have chosen A Game of Thrones as their inspiration; a neo-medieval society, all homespun fabrics, coarse knitting and furs. The set consisted of a system of screens and curtains moved by supers, which allowed for quick changes of scene. Using video too, designer Molly Einchcomb created some magical scenes. But at other times Bonas seemed to be aiming for filmic immediacy and long arias such as Polinesso's act two aria 'Se l'inganno sortisce felice', had virtually a different setting for each sub-section creating a breathless, whistle-stop feel. Lighting was dramatic with strong shadows on faces thus making life difficult at times. And we never did work out whether Polinesso was supposed to have a huge facial scar or a tattoo.
Bonas' s production was very much based around the youth of his cast. These were young people playing young characters (with the exception of the king).

Marie Lys, Thomas Erlank - Handel - Ariodante - London Handel Festival - photo Chris Christodoulou
Marie Lys, Thomas Erlank - photo Chris Christodoulou
Laurence Cummings kept speeds brisk and the setting ensured that the drama kept flowing so that with two intervals the performance lasted 3 hours 30 minutes. There were losses; though the excellent programme note talked of the opera's unusual use of dance, but the production omitted the dances. This was a great shame as the dances which conclude act two can help delineate Ginevra's state of mind. And the excellent chorus was kept firmly off stage, alas.

Kamilla Dunstan as Ariodante did not cut the most androgynous of figures, but compensated with a wonderfully free and open sense of personality. She has a bright, vibrant voice and easily moved from the great joy of act one, to the despair of 'Scherza infida', through the tournament-like challenge to the bravura fireworks of 'Doppo notte'.

Gemma Lois Summerfield is, I suspect, a soprano with a voice on the move towards the more dramatic. In the meanwhile we could enjoy her lively persònality and vibrant characterisation as Ginevra. A pleasure in the joyful first half, she brought great intensity to Ginevra's scenes later in the opera. Thanks to some strongly dramatic singing and fine personen-regie we really felt disturbed by Ginevra's scene at the end of Act Two.

Simphiwe Simon Shibambu - Handel - Ariodante - London Handel Festival - photo Chris Christodoulou
Simphiwe Simon Shibambu - photo Chris Christodoulou
This was a finely balanced cast and whilst you suspected that both Dunstan and Summerfield will go one to have careers in more romantic repertoire, they showed a nice sense of style. Cummings' lively speeds provided an occasional challenge in the passagework but they never compromised in expressiveness.

Thomas Scott-Cowell is a very personable young man on stage, with a fine counter-tenor voice. As the villainous Polinesso (a role actually written for a female singer 'en travestie') he struggled somewhat to bring out the character's underlying nastiness. As my companion commented 'you just want to hug him'. But he was able to take control of the stage and still make Polinesso count. And there were many musical consolations, what he did with his voice was well worth listening to and  he sang the Handel with intelligent style.

Maria Lys as Dalinda was slightly more seriously intense and rather less perky soubrette than I have seen in the past. But this worked in the context of the production. Lys conveyed a vibrant sense of Dalinda's youth. Her feel for Handel's music was strong with some finely accurate fioriture, culminating in a stunning show-stopping account of Dalinda's final aria, which showed that Lys can't just sing pinpoint coloratura but can really perform it.

Thomas Erlank made a strong Lurcanio (a role written for the young John Beard), his imposing stature contributing to a sturdy stage presence with a fine frank and open voice. Erlank's negotiating of the coloratura was impressive with a nice evenness in the passagework. He and Lys made a superb team in the lovely duet in act three where they reach an accommodation after all the turmoil.

Simphiwe Simon Shibambu made an impressive King, with a lovely dark voice and secure technique, plus a nice gravity of manner. Joel Williams as Odoardo got his aria and impressed with his strong lyric voice and fine command of line.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this performance was that the time just flew by, so engrossed were we in Handel's drama. Well paced by Laurence Cummings with never a moment when the singers seemed less than in full control. The London Handel Orchestra made a full sound in the pit. Though we did not get the dances there were plenty of moments for them to impress.

Recommended recordings
Handel Ariodante - Janet Baker, Edith Mathis, Norma Burrowes, James Bowman, Raymond Leppard
Handel Ariodante - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Lisa Saffer, Nicholas McGegan
Handel Ariodante - Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin, Sabina Puertolais, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Alan Curtis


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