I don’t usually attend a performance of an opera I’ve known well most of my life expecting a revelation, but exactly that happened Sunday afternoon at The English Concert’s presentation of Handel’s Ariodante conducted by Harry Bicket and starring a sovereign Joyce DiDonato in the title role.
It was not the singers nor the orchestra that so struck me but the magnificence of the work itself. Sure, everyone agrees that Ariodante is among Handel’s greatest works but honestly it’s not an opera that I listen to very often. I probably have ten or more recordings of it including a wonderful live one on “Trove Thursday” with Tatiana Troyanos from the last time the opera was performed at Carnegie Hall.
But recently I’m more likely to have a less familiar work like Silla or Berenice or Teseo playing at home. But Sunday’s show made me appreciate as never before Handel’s magisterial command in Ariodante.
The work presents a superbly moving drama of forgiveness with an immense power to stun and thrill its audience, particularly in the devastating second act which includes some of the composer’s greatest arias including the transcendent “Scherza infida” which was gorgeously rendered by DiDonato. When I got home, I couldn’t wait to play parts of the opera again and again.
If the celebrated American mezzo didn’t reach the dizzying heights of her great Alcina from two years ago, she gave a noble portrayal of the Scottish hero duped by a villainous rival into believing his fiancée has betrayed him. Though she sweetly floated her exquisite opening arioso “Qui d’amor,” the aria that followed, the joyous “Con l’ali di costanza,” was worryingly small-scaled.
Perhaps this was just an unfortunate interpretative choice or she hadn’t sufficiently warmed up; however, the remaining two acts found her in boldly confident form culminating in an expectedly dazzling “Dopo notte.” Despite somewhat reduced vocal resources, she surpassed her earlier recorded Ariodante which I greeted here six years ago with mixed feelings.
The other trouser role manifested the performance’s polar opposite: Sonia Prina’s grotesque Polinesso. Rarely have I felt as detached from the rest of an audience as during the enthusiastic cheers that rewarded her cartoonish characterization and painful caterwauling. Done up like a punked-out, grown-up Eddie Munster replete with fauxhawk, Prina’s Polinesso (wo)manhandled Dalinda so outrageously that the ingenue’s infatuation became utterly unbelievable.
I’m not at all averse to unconventional interpretations of the role; though disdained by many, Ewa Podle?’s bold villain is an immensely enjoyable highlight of the Marc Minkowski recording,
Once hailed as the baroque contralto the world had been waiting for, Prina’s singing has grown increasingly hollow, leathery and effortful. Polinesso’s creepy and insinuating “Se l’inganoo” (my favorite of his four arias) featured the sort of brazenly clucked coloratura unheard since Elinor Ross tackled Donna Anna.
Unfortunately Prina, featured in so many performances and recordings lately, has become such a blight that I usually try to avoid her entirely or fast-forward through her “contributions.”
Dalinda, who is hoodwinked into playing along with Polinesso’s devious plot (similar to the scheme used to disgrace Hero in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing) was to have been sung by American Joélle Harvey but she recently withdrew. I was initially chagrined to learn that English soprano Mary Bevan had replaced her. I’ve been mostly disappointed in the performances I’ve heard from her better-known soprano-sister Sophie—in their joint recording of Handel’s The Triumph of Time and Truth
I couldn’t tell them apart, even though Sophie was singing Beauty (!) and Mary Deceit (!!). Happily, Mary Bevan proved to be an absolute delight, her appealingly vulnerable Dalinda sung with a fresh and agile sparkle.
Though Handel’s duets are almost inevitably special, I was still surprised to find tears streaming down my cheeks during Dalinda’s achingly touching reconciliation with Lurcanio as it was performed with irresistible tenderness by Bevan and David Portillo.
Although understandably stressed by the challenging coloratura of “Il tuo sangue,” one of Handel’s most virtuosic tenor arias, Portillo otherwise suavely conveyed the sweetness as well as the outrage of Ariodante’s devoted brother.
The object of Lurcanio’s misplaced anger is Ariodante’s betrothed Ginevra who has been set up by Polinesso. Although I haven’t been a fan of German soprano Christiane Karg’s numerous recordings, as the performance progressed I was gradually won over. The voice proved much warmer in person and she affectingly portrayed the near-tragic journey of the Scottish princess.
There were still instances of edgy, unattractive tone that have bothered me on CD, but more often, especially when the music lay in the upper part of her voice, she captivated while negotiating the florid passages with aplomb.
A veteran of DiDonato’s complete Ariodante CD with Alan Curtis, bass Matthew Brook again took on the role of Ginevra’s father, the King of Scotland. Although he engagingly offered in his grateful arias a joyful ebullience or a profound sadness, his stage demeanor verged on the risible, from his bizarre scampering about following his first aria to his loud groaning at the conclusion of the intense “Invida sorte avara.”
Ariodante was the fifth in a series of Handel operas and oratorios presented at Carnegie by Bicket and his English Concert and concluded the so-called “Ariosto trilogy” of Alcina and last season’s Orlando. The expectedly superb playing by the period orchestra was much in evidence although at moments one wanted a bigger, richer sound in the enormous space.
Many of Bicket’s tempi struck me as a bit brisk—a number of arias sounded unnecessarily rushed. But he did strike an ideal pace for the tricky “Scherza infida” which in the hands of some other conductors becomes a near-dirge. In it, DiDonato was lovingly supported by Alberto Grazzi’s eloquent, keening bassoon.
Ornaments were mostly aptly and stylishly applied, although there were far too many distracting cadenzas added. I appreciated that no vocal music was cut but I didn’t understand omitting several of the dance numbers to save only a few minutes.
After a performance Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, this Ariodante tour travels to Europe where the title role will be sung by Alice Coote, as DiDonato will be having surgery following next Sunday’s starry Met gala. The Bicket-English Concert-Handel series continues next season at Carnegie Hall with Rinaldo starring Iestyn Davies as the good guy and Luca Pisaroni as the bad guy.
Meanwhile Ariodante remains a popular favorite with star mezzos, although occasionally a countertenor like Franco Fagioli a few years ago in Karlsruhe and Yuri Minenko last season in Lausanne has tackled the high-lying title role written for the great castrato Carestini.
Following her celebrated mezzo sisters like Janet Baker, Anne-Sofie von Otter, Lorraine Hunt Leiberson and Ann Hallenberg, Cecilia Bartoli,who has eschewed trouser roles for nearly her entire career, takes on Ariodante for the first time next month at her Pfingsten Festival in Salzburg where she repeats it during the summer festival with Rolando Villazon announced as Lurcanio (yeah, right!).
After having already performed both Alcina and Orlando, next season William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants finally turn to Ariodante for a new production by Sir David McVicar at the Vienna Staatsoper. Sarah Connolly, a veteran Ariodante, sings the title role there (with the marvelously named bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer as the King) while Kate Lindsey takes over as the beleaguered knight for a series of concert performances throughout Europe, a tour which one hopes might also show up in New York.