Ariodante in the swamp (London Handel Fest, 12 March 2016)
After a very intense couple of weeks with minimalist opera yours truly has returned to familiar shores, ie Handel – this time with fellow Handel-head thadieu. The evening ended up being quite a bit of romp, with the two of us sampling the central Upper Gallery and both sides of the horseshoe (one for each act) at Britten Theatre (RCM).
Ariodante: Katie Coventry
Ginevra: Sofia Larsson
Dalinda: Galina Averina
Polinesso: Elspeth Marrow
Lurcanio: Peter Aisher
King of Scotland: Simphiwe Simon Shibambu
Odoardo: Joel Williams
Conductor: Laurence Cummings | London Handel Orchestra
Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music
Director: James Bonas
Neither of us had seen Ariodante in the hall before. Whereas thadieu is a big fan, to yours truly Ariodante is “the other Handel opera from 1735”. But as usual, seeing something in the haus makes quite a bit of difference. Until now I remembered it as rather emotionally despondent and a bit dragging in act II, needing a very strong cast to hold my interest. Aside from the well known arias, of course, of which there are quite a few. But like Rossini used to say about Wagner, there are those dragging half hours in between the good 15min bits 😉 – here mostly known as Ginevra’s laments. Ok, it’s not quite as bad as that. In fact I think I only flagged during the last Ginevra lament, which did seem to go on a bit long.
The basic plot is that Ariodante is one of those Ariosto knights who has found himself at the court ot the King of Scotland, where he has fallen in love with the king’s daughter, Ginevra, who returns his affection. The king values him very highly and is happy to leave his throne to him as well as give him the daughter in marriage. But not everybody is so happy about it. Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, has his own designs with Ginevra, who hates him (with good reason, he’s a creep). He’s not deterred and cunningly deceives Ariodante into thinking that Ginevra is a chater and does not really love him. Ariodante is crushed and goes off to off himself (just like that). Ginevra is banished because of lost reputation and has a mini mad scene. Eventually everything is put right, Ariodante returns not the worse for wear and we get a very happy – impressively rendered here – chorus in the end.
Quite a bit is usually made in Ariodante productions of the Scottish location. In this case we get rustic wood, furs and knitted sweaters. Also the stage – a rectangular basin – progressively fills with water, which is neat visually but perhaps a bit of a hazard for singers? (who are wisely fitted with sturdy workboots). I also wonder if the orchestra got one or two splashes. The production made me think of the Theater-and-der-Wien ethos, which I am all for. Good use was made of the entire auditorium (very small), with Ariodante and Polinesso once entering from the stalls and the trumpets being perched on the far right balcony (right next to us in act III – bonus!).
We initially had seats in the front row of the Upper Gallery, which would’ve suited us just fine, had we (meaning I) not blocked the view of the people behind us. The problem is you either lean (perfect view of the stage and orchestra) or completely slump in your seat (no view of orchestra, limited view of the stage). A very nice lady who chatted with us before the start had warned us about this issue. Because of that I spent the first act feeling terrible for whoever was behind me but also not wanting to not see. So eating your cake and having it too can be less fun than you might think.Only at the intermission the lady behind me very politely told me I had completely blocked her view (let’s have three cheers for British politness).
Thadieu spotted two empty seats on the far left end of the horseshoe, so we relocated. This gave us an awesome aerial view of the orchestra and very good view of the stage, minus that corner. Also we could hear everything very well, including singers’ softer moments. However either the seats were too high or the floor too low, our feet were dangling, which presented a different discomfort. We did make it through the slow burning act II pretty well all in all (thadieu had a good nap 😉 ).
Act II had two high points for me, Scherza, infida and the moment when Ginevra very precariously climbed on a table top filled with water to sing her lament. Please, directors, think of your singers (and of us, audience members who might be making a leaving out of gauging risk).
Scherza, infida is one of those arias so famous within the Baroque context that probably each of us has a favourite at the back of their mind. When you hear very experienced singers do this you never think how hard it actually is. Here I was reminded it’s very long and you need to sustain the dreadful mood. Ariodante is at his lowest point, ready to commit suicide. For like 7min. Somewhat similar to Mi lusinga il dolce affetto from later that year, I am looking to hear some haunting woo-woos, which, to me, make up the climax of misery in this aria. There is no doubt Katie Coventry has a very agile voice but I thought those woo-woos needed more heartbreak. Not in the sense of verismo vocal crying, but in the colour inflected. Here they were a bit glossed over. Another thing that one probably gains with experience is a very clear idea of the mood of an aria. You need to carry that through, it doesn’t have to be too complicated – this aria is not, just woe is me and the slightly angry bit in the middle – but it has to be a consistent and recognisable mood. I felt Conventry’s rendition lost a bit of emotional coherence by the da capo. Before I move on I should add that the theorbo ornaments were very fine in this and the bassoon pleasant as usual.
For act III we relocated yet again, this time to the far right end of the Balcony. Here we had a superb view of the orchestra and a very good view of the stage. Voices and orchestra carried very well, highly recommended location. Also the trumpets this close (5m away) were lovely, though they inevitably slightly covered the chorus in the finale.
Handel fans know that Ariodante sings my favourite Ariodante aria and one of my top faves in general at the end of act III, namely Dopo notte. I am very happy to report that here Coventry sounded exquisite by all standards and coped impressively with the rather fast tempo in the endless coloratura. This one is easier to sustain that Scherza, infida, what with the unabashedly cheerful mood, which seems to suit Coventry’s disposition. For the da capo she indulged in some enthusiastic splashing, which made me chuckle. I also think her youthful face fits Ariodante as a character, who has always struck me as very young and naive.
Act III also boasts Lurcanio’s duel with Polinesso in regards to Ginevra’s fate (Polinesso is – perversely – her defender). The fight scene happened in the water – splashes and all – and it looked better than most fight scenes. I didn’t envy Marrow (Polinesso) for having to slump in the water any more than I did Larsson (Ginevra) for dropping to her knees and crawling in the same water. Troopers, I tells ya. The orchestra did a very energetic job illustrating the fight.
Which brings us to Polinesso. Marrow has very good chest notes, so good in fact I can still remember them. However thadieu and I agreed more work needs to be done with vocally portraying Polinesso’s evilness. The awesome Dover, giustizia, amor and Se l’inganno came off lukewarm emotionally. The best Polinessos out there have fun with it all, you can hear them rub their hands in glee. I know it’s not easy and, no I couldn’t sing them (though I so wish I could!) but, come on, live a little! A missed note here and there won’t put anyone off a vivid portrayal that will stay with your for a long time.
As far as emotionally charged performances my (and thadieu’s) favourite of the night was hands down Galina Averina’s Dalinda. You don’t go to Ariodante for Dalinda, Ginevra’s cruelly deceived servant, but she simply ruled. She was on from the word go and culminated with a show stealing Neghittosi or voi che fate? I have absolutely no complaints about her performance: lovely tone, awesome interaction with the orchestra, excellent technique, great agility, very expressive phrasing and good acting. I wish her all the best in her career and hope to see her again soon.
Simphiwe Simon Shibambu as the King of Scotland was also impressive both vocally and dramatically (very imposing and fatherly at the same time). Awesome true bass voice, the likes of which you don’t hear every day, with very good coloratura chops.
All in all a very enjoyable evening of young Handel voices and solid orchestra, good job London Handel Festival once again. (Hope to add some pictures later.)