Saturday, 21 November 2020

Despite lockdown, Handel's Ariodante returns to the main stage of Covent Garden

Handel: Ariodante - Chen Reiss - Royal Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton / ROH)
Handel: Ariodante - Chen Reiss
Royal Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton / ROH)

Handel Ariodante; Paula Murrihy, Chen Reiss, Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Ed Lyon, Christian Curnyn; Royal Opera House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Handel's opera returns to Covent Garden after over 280 years with a terrific international cast

Handel's opera Ariodante premiered on 8 January 1735; it was the first new opera he wrote for the Covent Garden Theatre. Handel's opera season (which began with Il pastor fido in 1734) was the first opera performance at the theatre, which had been built in 1732. Ariodante was not a great success, there were 11 performances in 1735 and two (in a radical version) in 1736 and then that was it.

Handel's Ariodante returned to Covent Garden, to the third theatre on the site, when the Royal Opera performed the work in concert on Friday 20 November 2020. Christian Curnyn conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, with Paula Murrihy as Ariodante, Chen Reiss as Ginevra, Sophie Bevan as Dalinda, Iestyn Davies as Polinesso, Ed Lyon as Lurcanio, Gerald Finley as the King of Scotland, Thando Mjandana as Odoardo. The performance was intended to be the first of two live performances, but lockdown meant that the performance was streamed.

In 1735, the title role was sung by the mezzo-soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini and Polinesso by the contralto Maria Caterina Negri, but in 2020 we had what has become conventional modern casting with a female mezzo-soprano as Ariodante and a counter-tenor as Polinesso (though it is still occasionally allowed for contraltos, I vividly remember Felicity Palmer in the role). The plot is one of the most accessible to modern audiences, it is a simple love story without magic elements, comedy or heroics, perhaps this was why 18th century audiences did not like it. And for all the work's three-hour length, the plot is very focussed without any independent sub-plot.

One element that we missed from the performance was the dances, Act Two ends with a scene where Ginevra's mad scene flows into dances for a sequence of dances for good and bad dreams. A striking example of Handel not just including dance, but integrating it into the drama, except that it seems he never performed it in this form. 

The performance was discreetly staged, the cast were off the book (hurrah), there were entrances and exits and a sense of characters interacting with each other so that we got a feeling for the drama. You felt that the singers were living their characters, not standing and delivering stunning singing (Chen Reiss, whom I interviewed in 2018, sang Ginevra in the Vienna State Opera's production of Ariodante directed by David McVicar).

Long gone are the days when orchestras at London's opera houses fiercely resisted the influence of period instruments, and from the opening notes of the overture, Christian Curnyn drew stylish results from his players. Speeds were generally on the faster side, this was a performance which really flowed, and playing was crisp.

Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy has made a strong career for herself on the continent (she was a long-time member of Frankfurt Opera) but has made few UK appearances, so this was a welcome chance to hear her. She has a beautifully even voice, used with great facility, and an engaging stage presence. Her great act two aria, 'Scherza infida' was taken at quite a fluid tempo, so that it moved without quite being gut wrenching, but also without being self-indulgent. This was a wonderfully balanced performance and I do hope that someone asks her back to London to do a fully staged production. The celebratory aria in Act Three, 'Doppo notte' was everything that we could have wished for, and was made all the more so by the fact that Murrihy had created a character that we were rooting for.

Chen Reiss was a poised, aristocratic Ginevra, as well she should be. She charted Ginevra's journey well, from the charm and joy of Act One (including the delightful Act One duet with Ariodante in which Handel interrupts the reprise of the A section with her father's impatient congratulations), the puzzlement of Act Two leading to a terrific mad scene - Reiss does intense, nervous, distraction very well. And after all that neurotic intensity,  the final joy was tinged with sadness.

Dalinda was written for the high soprano Cecilia Young, and she can be played as a soubrette, but Handel seems to have been conflicted as to how to pitch her, flirtatious or more seriously.  Sophie Bevan kept the centre of gravity on the serious side, this was a young woman with scruples, yet Bevan's voice had no trouble at all negotiating Dalinda's music, and the musicality of her performance was a real joy. This meant that her regret in Act Three, when she realised that she had been taken in, was profoundly intense.

Polinesso is perhaps one of the nastiest characters in Handel, made all the more so by the fact that, as Winton Dean suggests, being written for a woman the character does not bluster, instead he is sly and slippery. Polinesso has to be plausible, he takes Dalinda in completely and Iestyn Davies was wonderfully plausible, giving us some incredible singing, combining superb technique with sheer beauty. But he was also oily and nasty, so that we wouldn't trust him as far as we could throw him. A wonderful performance.

The role of the King of Scotland is a surprisingly complex one given the usual cast of Handel bass parts. Gerald Finley sang with engaging warmth and humanity, managing both to imbue his Act One aria with brilliance and make his farewell to his daughter, whom he has just condemned, very touching. There cannot be that many singers who can move so easily from Wagner to Handel.

Lurcanio, Ariodante's brother, is a lesser role, but he plays and important part in the drama and Ed Lyon is not the first tenor to make the most of the opportunities that the role offers. Lyon gave us technical security, an openness of character and an engaging dramatic urgency.

As Odoardo, Thando Mjandana rather got the short straw. The role, 'a favourite courtier', is bigger in the operas that were Handel's sources, but here he is reduced to a few phrases of dialogue. However, Mjandana acquitted himself well, and I look forward to hearing more of him. 

One of the impressive things about the performance was that none of the performers were Baroque specialists, all sing a wide range of roles yet the performance highly stylish. It is some time since the Royal Opera did a Handel opera on the main stage, recent Handel performances have been with young artists in the Linbury Theatre, so this performance was welcome in all sorts of ways. It was sad that we were not able to enjoy it in person, but this live stream came over extremely well.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Handel's Rinaldo recorded live in a vividly engaged performance from Italy - CD review
  • Born in Latvia, trained in Paris, lived in Canada: introducing Talivaldis Keninš, a very global 20th century composer - CD review
  • A riot of colours and textures: Avi Avital's imaginative programme of over 300 years of music for the mandolin - Art of the Mandolin  - CD review
  • The Auditions: Augusta Read Thomas' new ballet score on disc as part of Nimbus ongoing series devoted to her music  - CD review
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  • Closely worked arguments: Rory MacDonald & the RSNO in Thomas Wilson's Symphonies No. 3 & 4 - CD review
  • The Soldier's Return: Opera Sunderland's powerful film premiere of Marcos Fernandez-Barrero's new opera - opera review
  • Espiral: new music from Spain and Latin-America from Camerata Gala and Alejandro Muñoz - CD review
  • The See Within from Belgian ensemble The Echo Collective - CD review
  • A different part of the soul: Nicolas Hodges on recording the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Beethoven for his latest disc - interview
  • Home

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