Thursday 23 November 2023

Taking its energy from the youth of the performers: Olivia Fuchs' new production of Handel's Ariodante at Royal Academy Opera

Handel: Ariodante - Angharad Rowlands - Royal Academy Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Handel: Ariodante - Angharad Rowlands - Royal Academy Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Handel: Ariodante; Royal Academy Opera, director: Olivia Fuchs, conductor: David Bates; Royal Academy of Music
Reviewed 21 November 2023

Stylishly modern and exploring gender boundaries, this was a production that took its energy from the sheer youth of the performers

At the start of Olivia Fuchs' new production of Handel's Ariodante for Royal Academy Opera, the cast started writing The Rules on a large display board. The first one, 'The King rules by divine right', then continuing with affirmations of male succession, gender being binary, and so on. These neatly summarised that male-centric, patriarchal world of Handel's libretto, yet still they come over as somewhat shocking when seen all written down together.

Yet, part of the attraction of Ariodante is the immense sympathy Handel brings to the heroine Ginevra and her plight. Yes, the ending is the easy lieto fine that was expected but along the way, particularly at the end of Act Two, the composer really explores Ginevra's feelings. Add to this the complex layering of gender roles that a modern performance can bring (all Royal Academy Opera's performances feature women playing both Ariodante and Polinesso) and you have an intriguing set of challenges.

Handel: Ariodante - Charles Cunliffe, Clara Orif - Royal Academy Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Handel: Ariodante - Charles Cunliffe, Clara Orif - Royal Academy Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Fuchs' new production was in many ways playful, that is treating the piece with a light touch whilst taking the subject matter seriously, using an edition that was significantly cut yet the music treated with stylistic care, and the resulting version whilst being true to Handel's longer original also had a more democratic element. Handel's original aria distribution significantly favours the two leading players, but here the balance was shifted towards a more modern dramaturgical concept.

We caught the opening night of Olivia Fuchs' new production of Handel's Ariodanteat the Royal Academy of Music's Susie Sainsbury Theatre on Tuesday 21 November 2023. David Bates conducted the Royal Academy Sinfonia, with Angharad Rowlands as Ariodante, Clara Orif as Ginevra, Erin O'Rourke as Dalinda, Rebecca Hart as Polinesso, Henry Ross as Lurcanio, Charles Cunliffe as the King of Scotland and Samuel Stopford as Odoardo. Designs were by Yannis Thavoris with lighting by Jake Wiltshire and movement by Monica Nicolaides.

Thavoris' designs were crisp and modern, a plain yet stylish box for the production to inhabit. Costumes were modern too, with that type of cutting edge design that leverages the blurring of gender roles. The action during the overture began with a sort of allocation of roles, the two women playing Ariodante and Polinesso assuming their chosen gender, and at the very end, during the final coro, these were joyfully abandoned.

Within this, the story was told with clarity and perspicacity, without any lecturing. The production concentrated on presenting Handel's music drama, though there was a certain restlessness to the visual style, a sense that the performers needed to keep moving. During Ariodante's 'Scherza infida' which closed part one, or Ginevra's scene at the end of Act Two, there were moments when you wished that the singers might have been coached into doing less. But this was a production that seemed to take its energy from the sheer youth of the performers, and we again come back to that term 'playful' which I used earlier. But whatever the production's style, there was never any sense of us needing to be entertained, there was no hint of stage business there simply to provide visual distraction during a long aria.

Both Angharad Rowlands as Ariodante and Rebecca Hart as Polinesso in their different way leveraged a remarkable sense of androgyny when playing the male roles. Rowlands cut a dashing figure, all in white and incarnating very much the virtuous, moral heroic ideal. Rowlands has a lovely, well-modulated, rich-toned mezzo-soprano which she used admirably, giving us lots of lovely well-moulded phrases and creating a certain style for Ariodante. Physically she was confident too, making a fine hero. 'Scherza infida', which is very long, was confidently and impressively done, successfully drawing us into Ariodante's world, and here Rowlands was partnered by the fine bassoon playing of Shelby Capozzoli. Then at the end, Rowlands rose to the very different, bravura challenges of 'Dopo notte'.

There was never any sense that Clara Orif's Ginevra was simply an engaging air-head. During her opening scene, she rebuffed Rebecca Hart's Polinesso with great physicality. It was clear that whilst this Ginevra embraced the necessary gender roles, with much business with a girly-pink fake fur stole and make-up, she was not entirely defined by it. Orif's Act One arias were highly creditable, but she really came into her own at the end of Act Two when Ginevra, devastated by the accusation of being unfaithful, goes mad. In a powerful scene, Orif successfully moved us and sang with a real gleam in her tone and confident style. You rather wished that we could have got Handel's striking original version of the scene. But Orif was equally moving during her final aria, and then during the celebratory duet between Ariodante and Ginevra, Fuchs successfully brought out the sense of the couple in dialogue, moving to a new position as demonstrated by their striking through the list of rules. So the opera's celebratory ending did not, for once, feel hollow.

The second pair in the opera, Polinesso and Dalinda, also provide some of the real dramatic meat. As in the best of Handel's operas, there is no real sub-plot, all is part of the one entire drama. Erin O'Rourke made a lively, vibrant Dalinda yet one that was a lot more than a simple soubrette, combining the character's love of life with an intense, ultimately tragic devotion to Polinesso, and making her Act Three redemption believable. O'Rourke made a lovely foil for Orif's Ginevra in their scenes together.

Rebecca Hart was a wonderfully malign Polinesso. In terms of tone-quality, her voice was in fact quite similar to that of Rowlands' Ariodante but the wonderful physicality that Hart brought to the role really transformed her Polinesso into something remarkably malign, seductive when they needed to be yet always with that vein of nastiness and manipulation. Hart's account of Polinesso's music had that similar touch of magic, we loved watching yet knew they were despicable.

The two main roles for male singers, Lurcanio and the King of Scotland, both benefitted from the redistribution of arias as both characters kept theirs, thus bringing them forward in the mix. Henry Ross was a highly active Lurcanio, very much the engine of the action and his vibrant tone drove the character forward so that his eruption into the drama each time seemed to cause ructions. Ross sang with strong, vivid tone in a manner that was wonderfully arresting, though at times threatened to break out of the Handelian style.

Charles Cunliffe made a strong distinguished King of Scotland, holding his place on the stage from the very moment of his daring interruption of Ariodante and Ginevra's formal duet in Act One. The role is not the most dramatic, yet Cunliffe managed to elicit sympathy when the King had to deal with the conflicting demands of family and the law.

Samuel Stopford provided strong support in the small role of Odoardo The twelve-strong chorus were a more than vivid backdrop to the action, and were definitely all-singing, all dancing.

Handel: Ariodante - Samuel Stopford, Henry Ross, Charles Cunliffe - Royal Academy Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Handel: Ariodante - Samuel Stopford, Henry Ross, Charles Cunliffe - Royal Academy Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)

David Bates directed with sympathy and style, drawing fine playing out of the Royal Academy Sinfonia and drawing strong musical performances out of his cast. Individual instrumentalists were showcased in the opera, not just the bassoon, but horn players Samuel Middleton and Xinhe Zhao got to disport themselves on stage, as did one of the trumpeters.

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