Night of blindness
03/06/2002 - and 9, 12, 14, 20, 22, 27 March 2002
George Frideric Handel: Ariodante
Eric Owens (King of Scotland), Catrin Wyn-Davies (Ginevra), Sarah Connolly (Ariodante), Paul Nilon (Lurcanio), Sally Burgess (Polinesso), Mary Nelson (Dalinda), Finnur Bjarnason (Odoardo)
Harry Christophers (conductor), David Alden (director)
Ariodante, Handel's Scottish opera, is a masterpiece of the baroque in more than one sense. Like its companion piece Alcina, it deals with the problem of evil and its intimate connection with the deceptions of desire. But where Alcina takes place on a luxury isle that might be Japan or Mustique whose dangers are those of extreme sensuality, Ariodante is set in (perhaps) St Andrews, and both the political regime and the physical environment are more brutal. It is the long northern night and human corruption that make things obscure rather than exotic magic. Both operas include some of Handel's greatest and most moving vocal music, and there is scarcely a number to cut they are so well made. But Scherza infida, the massive central aria where Ariodante expresses his erotic despair after (he believes) he has seen evidence of his beloved Ginevra's impurity, is overwhelming in its obsessive cumulation of agony in a way that Alcina's (very human) diva laments are not.
David Alden's 1993 production for the ENO established Ariodante in the standard repertoire by bringing out the palpable darkness of the work, showing the febrile excess of the lovers' happiness in the first act as well as the abyss of Ariodante's despair and Ginevra's torment in the second act. Everyone is jumpy and close to the edge all the time, except for the sinister game-playing courtiers who clearly run the show. The set is darkly beautiful and mysterious, all midnight blues and library browns. There are some of Alden's trademark gestures: the first season had a surfeit of chairs (now disappeared), and there are light fittings of several kinds, although they are entirely appropriate to the theme of deception and discovery. But the production ultimately provides a suitably bleak framework for the glorious music, in a way that makes Calixto Bieito's rightly admired Masked ball look trivial.
Harry Christophers, in his second ENO production, directed the orchestra in a stately and intense performance, perhaps a bit short of euphoria in the first-act rejoicing and of moonlight in the night music that opens act two, but always rich and expressive.
The excellent cast is almost all new since the revival of the production in 1996. Catrin Wyn-Davies, after an uncertain start, was tormented as Ginevra, powerful in her mad scene and prison scene in act three while keeping the delicacy of her music. Mary Nelson was a sweet and sincere rather than neurotic Dalinda. Sarah Connolly as Ariodante looked heroic and sounded glorious. Her tour-de-force arias were an integral part of the drama, and it was easy to forget how difficult they are. Connolly's performance on its own would justify seeing this production, although the rest of the cast are almost as good.
The only shortfall was Sally Burgess as Polinesso. Burgess is nothing if not game (she sang Baba the Turk in The rake's progress earlier this season), but she cackled and, figuratively speaking, twirled her mustaches like a panto villain. Christopher Robson's deeply unpleasant and predatory Polinesso is a hard act to follow, but Burgess succeeded only in emulating Robson's croaking and cracking, perhaps deliberately since the music is much less demanding for a mezzo than for a counter-tenor.
Eric Owens was vocally solid and theatrical enough as the King. Paul Nilon, the sole returning member of the original cast, was superb as Lurcanio. Lurcanio, like Eustazio in Rinaldo or Septimius in Theodora (like Lurcanio, a role first sung by John Beard) is thematically and emotionally crucial, a voice of honesty and love in the midst of ambition and moral confusion. Nilon, as well as singing with incredible beauty, brought out the beauty of the music in a role that is normally treated as a slightly embarrassing add-on.