What are we to make of Handel’s Ariodante? The plot centres on the notion that female chastity is the be all and end all of life. It’s not a notion that would find much support in 21st century Toronto, even among a Sunday afternoon audience at the Four Seasons Centre. Ginevra, princess of Scotland and heir to the king, is betrothed to Ariodante. Ariodante has a rival, Polinesso who is loved in a besotted kind of way by Ginevra’s maid, Dalinda. Polinesso claims to have slept with Ginevra and offers to prove it to Ariodante. He drugs Ginevra and gets Dalinda to put on Ginevra’s clothes and invite him into her room. Ariodante disappears, apparently having committed suicide in a fit of despair. On the flimsiest of evidence Ginevra, who has no idea what happened, is condemned to death. Her accusers, including her father, don’t even bother to ask who the man in her room was. Polinesso tries to remove the now inconvenient Dalinda from the scene but fails and when Ariodante shows up again she spills the beans. Polinesso is killed by Ariodante’s brother in a duel but not before confessing. All is forgiven and everyone carries on as if nothing in the least traumatising just happened. So, what to do with this?
Richard Jones’ answer, first seen at the Aix festival and now at the COC, is to transfer the action to a remote fishing village in the Hebrides in, say, the 1950s. The king is the local “big man” and Polinesso is a charismatic “preacher” from the mainland. As we soon learn he is a complete fraud but he’s got the villagers hooked. This creates a coherently claustrophobic world where nobody stands up against group speak and the rigidities of Calvinism can be manipulated to Polinesso’s advantage. The plot plays out with lots of clever details that work well with the libretto. It is played out on a single set with three “rooms”, separated only by virtual doors which serve to delineate the spaces without mucking up sightlines; the kitchen, the main room (let’s call it the Hall because it fulfils both public and private functions) and Ginevra’s bedroom. It’s simple and effective. Costuming is sort of “everyday seafaring folk” except for Ginevra who is more feminine and the King who gets sort of highland semi-formal.
The dance music, with which Ariodante abounds, is used partly to accompany country dances, rather well executed by the small chorus, and partly to support puppetry. The puppets come out three times. At the end of Act 1 they play out Ariodante and Genevra’s wedding and their future happily fruitful family life. In Act 2 they show a nightmarish version of the descent into prostitution that would surely be Ginevra’s fate if they weren’t going to kill her anyway (this is the Ballet of Good and Bad Dreams in the “standard” version) and then finally, right at the end, we get a reprise of the “happy families” sequence while the chorus sings the triumphal Ogn’uno acclami bella virtute. Ginevra packs her bag and leaves, apparently unnoticed by anybody. One person, finally has seen through the bullshit and cruelty and realises that things cannot return to where they were. Hence the title of this review. It’s a genius touch that ties together all the threads of the production into something that actually makes sense.
All of this is supported by some very fine acting. It has been said that despite Ariodante being the title of the piece it is really Ginevra’s story. Here it almost becomes Polinesso’s because he is much the most sharply drawn character and he is very nasty indeed. He forces himself on women, is a voyeur and has a rather unpleasant penchant for sniffing Ginevra’s tights. He’s also a compulsive liar and a rapist. He leaves Dalinda badly beaten up after their encounter in Ginevra’s room. There are no prizes for suggesting a modern analogue. Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan’s portrayal is superb. Her movements are so masculine in a sleazy way it’s very easy to forget that it’s a woman acting the role. Jane Archibald too is a terrific mover and makes Ginevra’s transition from carefree to desperate to resolute entirely convincing. Oddly, the title character, played by Alice Coote, has much less to do dramatically but she too manages to convince as a male. Then there is the Dalinda of Ambur Braid. Dowdy, diffident and mousy are not adjectives I associate with her but she pulls off that look here with aplomb. Only in her Act 3 “revenge aria” do we see a glimpse of the Queen of the Night. Johannes Weisser is a physically commanding presence as the King and Owen McAusland is very effective as Ariodante’s angry brother Lurcanio. Aaron Sheppard appears in the small role of Odoardo.
The singing is really good too though I think it’s clear that in this production where the needs of the drama clash with the desire to sing beautifully the drama always wins out. Alice Coote is probably the singing star in the role that was created for Carestini and which features what sometimes seem like a few too many da capo arias. Anyway, Scherza infida was quite lovely and Dopo notte was navigated successfully but not without making me wonder what Handel was on when he wrote it. Ginevra probably, Sherza infida aside, gets the most beautiful music and Jane Archibald made the most of it. Manca, O dei was particularly fine and throughout we got her immaculate and sparkling coloratura. The duets between these two were also very good. One of the things I noticed is that the structure and style of this piece, while still very much an Italian opera, just begins to foreshadow some of the things Handel was to do later in his oratorios; more ensemble numbers, more use of the chorus, some slightly simpler melodies. Beats an endless sequence of da capo.
Varduhi Abrahamyan is always going to be remembered more for her acting than her singing in this production though it was actually very good. Se l’inganno was one of the vocal highlights. Owen McCausland showed what a fine singer he is becoming with a very stylish and appropriately weighted tenor. His Tamino should be well worth seeing. Johannes Weisser’s singing matched his physical presence; big, imposing, regal. Just right for the role. Ambur Braid too impressed with a couple of fine arias with her trademark fierceness coming out in Act 3. The small chorus was quite excellent (as ever). Johannes Debus conducted and got an idiomatic performance out of the orchestra. It’s surprising how, even on modern instruments, the COC Orchestra can lighten up the textures for this kind of work.
It’s quite fascinating that the COC can produce two such contrasting approaches to opera on consecutive days. Norma is a festival of great singing in a production that scarcely causes the synapses to function while Ariodante is a complex piece of theatre that transcends its source material but demands great acting and some really focussed engagement by the audience with the very good singing very much in service of the drama.
Ariodante continues at the Four Seasons Centre until November 4th.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper