Thursday, March 7, 2019

Highlights aplenty in Handel's freshly viewed and muscularly sung Ariodante from Lyric Opera of Chicago

Incisive, disquieting and sung with compelling muscularity and poignancy, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s updated and freshly viewed Ariodante is a Handel winner. Tuesday’s performance, second in a run of six, was in some respect the opening night that wasn’t to be, due to mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s indisposition. As it transpired, an announcement before curtain, informing that Coote was recovering from the flu but wanted to sing, really wasn’t necessary. Digging deep, singing with convincing expressivity and bravura in the title role, Coote navigated the journey in Ariodante’s path from wide-eyed pristine love to heartbroken belief of betrayal and eventual 'joyous' reunion in a heroic performance that deserved the standing ovation received.

Alice Coote as Ariodante (centre) and cast in Handel's Ariodante
With an excellent cast across the board, accompanied by more than three hours of lusciously distilled Baroque music, Handel’s 1735 work comes with an imaginatively conceived and confronting adaptation by British director Richard Jones (realised by revival director Benjamin Davis) - a co-production with Festival Aix-en-Provence, Canadian Opera Company and Dutch National Opera. 

From its original royal Medieval Scottish setting, Jones’ update of the story to a small, idiosyncratic island community in 1970s Scotland, gives something to say in our times about the danger of close-minded groups and, notably, of discrimination and violence against women. Jones’ community is isolated and bible-bound, one where a woman’s value is measured by her service to men, where abuse appears tolerated and a sexual predator can hide as a preacher of God.

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 depraved Polinesso (disguised in Jones's version as a visiting priest) desires Ginevra and deceives the home helper Dalinda, who has fallen for him, into disguising herself as Ginevra. Bragging to Ariodante that Ginevra loves him, a trap is set that reveals Ginevra (the disguised Dalinda) accepting him into her bedroom. The repercussions are damaging.

Brenda Rae as Ginevra and
Kyle Ketelsen as the King
The action takes place in three distinct adjacent rooms of a simple bungalow - kitchen, communal/dining area and bedroom. Though appearing as one large boxed space, each room has its own feel. ‘Invisible’ walls and doors respectively separate the action and guide character movements. Overall, an odd edginess pervades British set and costume designer Ultz and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin’s suitably evocative creation. 

Jones’ consistent use of pronounced theatricality and choreographed slow-moving and processional-like drama to extend, enliven and interpret the text is particularly successful in giving momentum and connecting action to the lengthy repetition of text in the Baroque 'da capo’ arias. Indeed, what showed was an exciting sense of Jones’ service to the music. Conductor Harry Bicket’s own careful balance of intensity and momentum ensured the drama remained alive and strident, aided by untiringly fine music-making in the pit - the strings especially sounding keenly reinforced. And, cannily, the baroque music and 70s update fused wonderfully, apart from Act 3’s trumpet fanfare where you might’ve half expected to hear folkish bagpipes (seen on stage) bellow a tune. 

Where ballet would exist in each of the three acts, the entertaining use of puppets mimicking Ariodante and Ginevra make comment on the what-ifs or what-will-be within the story. It’s a smart device that, with their operation by puppeteers and chorus, intensifies the sense of the tight-knit group. 

Eric Ferring, Alice Coote, Brenda Rae and Kyle Ketelsen
But there’s a not-quite-right-feel to this mostly feral knitwear-dressed background lot, giving the impression that inbreeding has caused degenerative affects. Dalinda comes across much the same way - raised in a remote environment where dignity was never granted her and which might explain her attraction to the disgusting, lecherous Polinesso. And without giving too much away after realisation that the accused Ginevra was in fact innocent, an interesting final twist suggests she understands that there are other places beyond. Of course, in this update, not far away in London in the 60-70s, a new generation were pushing their own agenda of freedom.

Coote’s broad palette of vocal colour and shade brilliantly powered the laddish and ardent Ariodante. Just when one lengthy aria was over and you couldn’t imagine another summit ahead, Coote knocked out another of equal or greater formidability. And within each of their lengthy stretches, the dynamism and subtle enhancements always engrossed, as demonstrated by Ariodante’s frozen and unbearable mental suffering in "Tu preparati a morire". Horrified, Ariodante waits disbelievingly outside Ginevra's bedroom as Dalinda (assuming it’s Ginevra), is sexually assaulted by Polinesso.

Heidi Stober as Dalinda
As the willowy, long red-haired Ginevra, Brenda Rae streamed radiance and polished ornamented top notes in a marvellous portrayal of hope and pathos. It was in her aching emotion that especially cut deeply in Act II's "Il mio crudel martoro", in which Ginevra is crushed by her father’s condemnation as a whore and sung as life is seemingly zapped from her. 

American soprano Heidi Stober gave all as the lost, ill-thinking Dalinda, to whom sympathy is easily extended. Often seen shrinking on the sidelines in apron, in her, Stober shared an inexplicable grace. Rich and vibrant in voice and pitching her coloratura with excellence, Act 1’s “Il primo ardor", became a pitiful grovelling expression of love for Polinesso.

As the Polinesso of two personas, countertenor Iestyn Davies’ adept flexibility and slick coppery tone worked its way to the creepy affect required. Kilted bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen raised the charismatic command of Handel’s ‘King of Scotland’ before the might of his authority came down on his daughter. And with Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio - in love with Dalinda - you got an insight into Ryan Opera Center scholar Eric Ferring’s promising career through the fervency and sincerity he presented, delivered with toasted marshmallow warmth and smoothness of line.

A long list of highlights should keep you comfortably in your seats but not to be missed is Act 3’s succession of breathtaking arias. First, Coote's "Cieca notte" sung with vocally athletic ease and gusto as Ariodante learns the truth of Polinesso’s deception, Rae's explosive coloratura in Dalinda’s remorseful “Neghittosi or voi che fate?", followed by Davies’ suave and impassioned, "Dover, giustizia, amor" in the crafty Polinesso’s offer to defend Ginevra’s honour.

For the ears alone, the dramatic strength and melodious turbulence of Handel’s Ariodante is worth it but, without seeing it, you would miss Jones’ eerily reimagined world that adds so much more. Highly recommended.

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Until 19th March, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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