Thursday, 26 May 2011

Review of Ariodante at the Barbican

Last night Alan Curtis and his ensemble, Il Complesso Barocco, on the 3rd leg of a short tour they are doing, performing Handel's Ariodante to link in with the release of the ensemble's recording of the opera. Thankfully all 6 main cast members were identical to those on the recording. And what a cast it was. The American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sang Ariodante with Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin as Ginevra. Fellow Canadian Marie-Nicole Lemieux was back in her baroque trousers as Polinesso (having sung Vivaldi's Orlando here recently) and Spanish soprano Sabina Puertolas was Dalinda. With Matthew Brook (Australian) as the King and Nicholas Phan (American) as Lurcanio. The scheduled Odoardo was ill and replaced by Sam Furness who is currently studying at the Royal Academy.

Curtis and his forces gave us a full version of the opera, complete with the ballet which closes Act 2. This meant for a long evening (6.30pm to 10.15pm with one 20 minute interval), but it was an entirely engrossing one. Though the cast used scores, they were not glued to them and DiDonato in particular hardly seemed to need hers. All reacted to each other, sang duets together and enlivened the drama with facial expressions and gestures. Not a semi-staging, but an extremely expressive concert performance, which helped the cast's creation of individual characters.

DiDonato's Ariodante was astonishing, traversing the character's arc from connubial bliss, through despair to brilliant joy. Not just her voice was expressive, but her whole body language. It is difficult to pick out high points because each aria stood out in its own way. Scherza infida, with its haunting bassoon, was certainly moving and engrossing, time seemed to stand still. But the bravura final aria was thrilling, with DiDonato's familiar expressive way with fioriture. A vividly dramatic portrayal, fully rounded and highly satisfying.

Ariodante was written for the soprano castrato Carestini, a singer who was highly adept at the busy, instrumental style of vocal writing which we find in many of Vivaldi's operas. Handel showed himself equally adept, providing Carestini with a string of challenging virtuoso pieces. DiDonato showed us how a truly gifted singer can move from simple virtuosity and find the real expressiveness in the music.

But the cast was finely balanced and DiDonato's performance was complemented and supported by equally fine ones from the other principals. Karina Gauvin has a richer voice with rather more depth than we are used to in Ginevra, but she doesn't compromise on technical ability. So her reading of Ginevra was suitably brilliant and bravura, but also extremely moving, mining depths of emotion. In particular her aria at the end of Act 2 was one of the stunning moments in a strong performance. She and DiDonato formed a strong double act with a genuine rapport, they were a believable couple.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux is a very physical performer and with a character like Polinesso this gave us a highly coloured and vivid interpretation. Sometimes I thought that she needed a strong producer to rein her in and focus her a little, but these were faults in the right direction and she ensured that there were as strong and noticeable contrast between the two mezzo-soprano voices singing the principal male roles. But Lemieux's Polinesso wasn't a caricature, there was some strong, expressive singing.

Sabina Puertolas was a charming Dalinda, suitably soubrette in voice and forming a nice contrast with Gauvin. There was an element of reticence in her performance which did charm, but she could have been a little showier. That said, her sense of Handelian style and technical finesse were both extremely fine and she too developed a strong rapport with her lover, Gauvin.

It is astonishing that John Beard was only 20 when he created the role of Lurcanio. Obviously Beard was something special as Handel gave him some stunning arias, despite the character's lack of real dramatic importance. Nicholas Phan made us forget any of these issues as he turned in a series of sparkling bravura performances.

Matthew Brook was a fine, noble King, truly torn when Ginevra is apparently guilty of being unchaste. He made the King's arias something special, something worth listening to rather than simply being way stations that you were eager to get past.

Sam Furness sang the small, but important part of Odoardo; a role with no aria, but one which requires the singer to expedite some of the drama in the recitative. Furness was a credit to his training and displayed an attractive, unforced lyric voice.

Il Complesso Barocco under Curtis's relaxed direction, provided some fine solo instrumental playing, good lively support in the arias and nicely expressive playing in the orchestral items.

This was indeed an evening to remember. An example of what good opera seria can be and surely will have sent out the whole audience to buy the group's recent recording!

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