West Road Concert Hall
George Frideric Handel: Ariodante
Andrew Slater (Donald), Joanna Burton (Ginevra), Claire Ormshaw (Dalinda), Jonathan Peter Kenny (Polinesso), Louise Mott (Ariodante), Ashley Catling (Lurcanio)
Laurence Cummings (conductor), James Conway (director)
Ariodante is one of Handel's grander operas, with a plot that depends on the rules of chivalry and the pride of royalty, and a structure built around acts that end in substantial French-style ballets and choruses. English Touring Opera, however, is touring smallish venues with a production that shares most of an orchestra and crew, as well as an atmosphere of domestic oppression, with The Turn of the Screw. James Conway, until recently artistic director of co-producer Opera Theatre, Dublin, is an old hand at producing theatrical Handel with minimum resources, and Ariodante is also about some core human experiences -- love, despair, and deception, between lovers and within the family -- that ought to stand without too much decor or spectacle.
Conway's solution is striking but, to say the least, bizarre. Starting, apparently, from the opera's Scottish setting and obsession with sexual morality, he makes the king into a well-heeled clergyman and Ginevra's rival suitors into younger clergymen trying to make their way in the world. Almost everything takes place in a parlour, where there is a picture of the nearby sea, among ruins ,or by the sea, all evoked by a couple of movable walls and a back projection. The libretto is adapted accordingly, with frequent references to God's will and scriptural citations (the B section of Per ali di speranza has Ginevra redeeming the sin of Eve) that sound oddly like the oratorios. Much of it works: there is a definite sense of a place where pride and prurience are more extreme than ours (wherever we are), and the rituals of the court transfer nicely to those of over-polite bourgeois society. But for those who know the opera, the lack of the finales of the first two acts deforms it beyond recognition, while merging the two truncated acts makes for a long haul and a unbalanced last act. Individual arias are wisely cut. Cieca notte is transferred to Polinesso and made into an oath of revenge (on the basis that he realises that Dalinda is alive and ready to dish), which is no worse than Handel did in some of his revisions, but still unrelated to the opera as written.
The ETO orchestra, playing baroque instruments, were sprightly but unhurried, and not really on top of the finer points. The singers were more impressive, though few were particularly idiomatic and the small size of the hall gave them the unusual opportunity to drown the orchestra at times. All were committed to the production, and perhaps delivered stronger theatre than music. Claire Ormshaw had a concealed edge as the masochistic Dalinda, while Joanna Burton's Ginevra was effective in a broad-brush sort of way but almost always too loud. Andrew Slater was a touch wooffy as the renamed king, but he looked suitably patriarchal and tormented. Ashley Catling couldn't make much of the dramatically thankless role of Lurcanio, although his final, tormented reconciliation with Dalinda was quite moving. Jonathan Peter Kenny looked suitably demonic as Polinesso, but in a generic sort of way.
Louise Mott in the title role was potentially in a different league to the others. In 1996, she sang the role for the Early Opera Company and delivered stunning coloratura. This time, she was more impressive dramatically than vocally, except for a measured, heart-rending Scherza infida, which sounded like the only thing she really wanted to sing.