Saturday, October 29, 2016

Evocative, confronting and a knock-out vocal beauty: Canadian Opera Company's Ariodante in Toronto

Canadian Opera Company's new and exhilarating production of Handel's Ariodante (1735) comes with a curiously evocative and confronting adaptation by British director Richard Jones, over three hours of radiant Baroque music and knock-out vocal beauty to accompany it.

A scene from Canadian Opera Company's Ariodante
Jones pulls Ariodante's story of love, honour and deception out of its royal Medieval Scotland setting and drags the audience into his mid-20th century Hebridean island adaptation as voyeurs of a small, idiosyncratic community. It's an isolated place steeped in puritanical religious stringencies in which Jones emphasises harshness and injustices explicitly, one where women serve their men, abuse goes unpunished and a 'priest' can do what the heck he likes.

Removing the royal titles of the original, Ariodante is a working class scrubber in love with Ginevra, daughter of the island's governor (the King of Scotland in Handel's original). They have his blessing to marry but the insidious Polinesso desires Ginevra (in Jones's version he's disguised as a visiting priest) and dupes the home helper Dalinda, who pines for him, into disguising herself as Ginevra. Bragging to Ariodante that Ginevra loves him, he sets up the trap that reveals Ginevra (the disguised Dalinda) accepting him into her bedroom in order to prove his point. The repercussions are immediate.

Drawing much attention to Polinesso, Jones shifts dramatic weight to the villainy and, though Polinesso's priestly disguise creates some ambiguity in the drama, at the very least, it acts to generate the blind trust a community has in religious cloth.

Alice Coote as Ariodante
The action occurs across three distinct rooms of a rudimentary cabin - bedroom, communal/dining area and kitchen. Adding interest, invisible walls and doors respectively separate the action and guide character movements. Resembling an entrenched working class world one might encounter in a Lars von Trier movie, a chilling edginess pervades this remote society that British set and costume designer Ultz and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin have created.

Jones tears this 'opera seria' drama apart successfully and balances gravity with lighter relief. Sometimes the two share the same moment with some scenes so confronting, including Polinesso's rape of Dalinda, that they're almost too hard to watch. Then, where ballet would close each of the three acts, not only does Lucy Burge's choreographed Scottish dancing effectively convey the tightness of community, but the clever and stunning use of puppets entertainingly make comment on the what-ifs or what-will-be within the story.

Most expertly handled is the way Jones consistently employs pronounced theatricality and gently choreographed slow-motion drama to extend, enliven and interpret the text, marvellously connecting the action to the lengthy repetition of lines in the A-B-A Baroque 'da capo' ternary form.

One after another, Handel's arias unleash their glory from a strong cast led by four women of magnanimous talent, two in trouser roles.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote leaps from strength to strength as a virile yet sensitive and laddish Ariodante, drawing on resources from which only the best can do. In the voice there is lightness, power, beauty and a fleshy coloratura but, most astoundingly, a perfectly employed and descriptive rough-and-ready contrast to reflect Ariodante's working class status. The moment we see Dalinda thrown wildly about Ginevra's bedroom by Polinesso, and Ariodante stands disbelievingly outside assuming it's Ginevra, Coote brilliantly imparts Act II's "Tu preparati a morire" with immeasurable suffering and haunting pity.

Johanness Weisser, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote
As Ginevra, Jane Archibald is a radiant stage presence, depicting her with hopefulness and singing her with pathos. Sweet daintiness and angry outburst are treated with equal aplomb in a voice that displays great control and that rises to clean top notes. The great tragedy of being condemned by her father as a whore is whipped into one of many vocal highlights and riveting theatre in Act II's "Il mio crudel martoro".

Varduhi Abrahamyan slips between two personas, one the sometimes Rossini-like comical buffo character of Don Alonso as the 'priest', the other with a believable egocentric machismo she portrays as the vile Polinesso. The most clearly enunciated of the principals, Abrahamyan's warmth of tone and appealing flickering vibrato resonate with strength.

But then comes soprano Ambur Braid's formidable performance as Dalinda, one you can't help but hold your breadth and lose yourself in. To make sense of her character, Jones seems to want to make her gullible, simple-minded and deeply affected by a victimised past. Braid gives all this with frightful pain as she ill-thinkingly pursues the love of a brutish sado-masochist. Cowering on the sidelines in her apron, Braid's rich and fulsome mezzo-soprano poignantly imbues Dalinda with a nobility that seems to beg respect. Before the jubilation of Act I's finale, Braid showcases a fluttering and acrobatic coloratura amongst a marvellous field of colour, contour and shade as she sings of her love for Polinesso in "Il primo ardor" with the audience no doubt wishing they could knock some sense into her.

Tall, handsome and kilted, Johannes Weisser exudes overall good-mannered governance as the 'King of Scotland', bar when dragging his wrongly accused daughter before the community to shame her. Weisser doesn't look quite old enough to convince as Ginevra's father but he comes with pleasing oaky toned richness and a robustly centred voice that travels with greatest ease to the lowest range.

Jane Archibald, Ambur Braid, Varduhi Abrahamyan
In love with Dalinda, Owen McCausland's Lurcanio is convincingly forthright and there's impressive resonant power and clarity to his brawny bass-baritone if but a tendency to overexert. A small chorus of 12 snake through the cabin, contributing strong in voice as well as dancing and delightfully acting as puppeteers.

The list of highlights are extensive but, unlike a few daft patrons who departed after Act II, Act III reaches breathtaking heights with three thrilling consecutive arias. First comes Coote's "Cieca notte" (Ariodante) as she makes dazzling register shifts while displaying seemingly immense laryngeal pleasure. Next, Braid's fireball coloratura sets alight "Neghittosi or voi che fate?" (Dalinda) and Abrahamyan follows with an impassioned, smooth and confident "Dover, giustizia, amor" (Polinesso).

Handel's score took a moment to translate into its exhilarating potential under conductor Johannes Debus's command, but it eventually rose and comfortably cruised alongside the quality on stage. Apart from some wobbly brass peering through, the COC Orchestra showed their stamina with evenness of playing.

In presenting Handel's Ariodante, COC not only shows off the beauty of Baroque music in full bloom with a superlative cast, they also give it modem theatrical relevance in a fresh and insightful interpretation.

Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre, Toronto
Until 4th November

Production photos: Michael Cooper

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