By James Karas
The Aix-en-Provence Festival offers five operas among many other cultural events during its 66th season. All of it is done in three weeks in July. One of the operas is Georg Frideric Handel’s 1735 masterpiece Ariodante.
Director Richard Jones and Set and Costume Designer Ultz give this opera seria an idiosyncratic production that has many points of interest but a few head-scratchers as well.
The plot. The knight Ariodante is in love with Princess Ginevra and her father, the king, approves. Everyone is happy but Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, who wants her. Ginevra’s lady-in-waiting, Dalinda, is in love with Polinesso. He asks her to dress like Ginevra and be seen by Ariodante with him. She does, they are seen and Ariodante is ready to commit suicide at the thought that he was betrayed. Needless to say, all will be resolved in about four hours and love will triumph.
Handel has provided some magnificent arias and ensemble pieces for everyone. The vocal demands are high especially in arias that have a few lines repeated many times. They require vocal modulations and trills that are taxing but simply gorgeous when done well.
English mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly tackles the role of Ariodante. She has a beautiful voice and does a fine job but I think more passion and modulation is needed in some of her arias. When she sings “Scherza, infida” (Laugh, unfaithful one) after discovering that Ariodante has been betrayed by Ginevra, I want more heart-breaking passion, anger, resolve and raw pain. It may be the size of her voice but here were times when she did not seem to be firing on all cylinders.
Soprano Patricia Petibon as Ginevra has moments of bliss and despair and a mad scene to boot. This is not a mad scene to compete with the Lucias and Lady Macbeths of the19th century but she weaves a convincing vocal and acting representation.
Most interesting is the portrayal of Polinesso by contralto Sonia Prina. Acceding to Jones, Polinesso is a perfidious cleric, grey-haired, hypocritical and evil. He reminded me of Tartuffe. Prina has beautiful low notes but she had a bit of difficulty manoeuvring through her trills at the beginning. She settled down into a fine performance as the dirty old man.
The secondary characters more than held their own. Bass Luca Tittoto handled the low notes of the King with no difficulty and tenor David Portillo held the middle range as Lurcanio with the high notes given to Sandrine Piau as Dalinda. Well done.
Ariodante, originally set in the royal palace in Edinburgh in 8th century Scotland, is moved to the present and takes place in what looks like a farmhouse. The single set has four playing areas, visible at all times, with imaginary walls. There is a small entry corridor on the left, a kitchen area, a large room with a table and chairs, and a small bedroom on the right. This is a modest residence and there is nothing to indicate that it is the palace of the King of Scotland. It clearly is not.
The King wears a kilt and pipes appear for a few moments. Aside from that there is no indication that we are in Scotland. Aside from the kilt and the white hat of a naval officer worn by one of the characters, the costumes are non-descript modern clothes with perhaps a rural flavor.
In order to get Dalinda to dress up as Ginevra, Polinesso puts a potion in Ginevra’s drink and she collapses, unconscious. A very nice invention by Jones. Then Ariodante discovers Dalinda as Ginevra and Polinesso dallying and goes into his “why-am-I-still-alive” recitative before going over the edge in “Scherza infida.” In the meantime Polinesso is trying to seduce Dalinda in the bedroom and the two must get rid of Ginevra. They throw her under the bed and soon disappear there themselves. Ariodante is left alone for the aria, of course. Jones is trying to enrich the story but on this occasion it is a bit awkward.
Having Polinesso as a cleric in a black robe, is a brilliant move. There are heavy religious overtones in the production from prayers to bibles. Jones is a man of detail and he develops the idea of Polinesso as a cleric completely.
After each act, Handel calls for a ballet. At the end of the happy first act, shepherds and shepherdesses are supposed to dance for the amusement of Ariodante and Ginevra. At the end of the second act, the mad Ginevra is to have nightmares. At the end of the opera, we are supposed to have happy dancing because all is well.
This production has the fine English Voices but no corps de ballet. The chorus members manage a few steps of Scottish dancing and then we have puppet shows between the acts. The marionettes are, among other things, fecund and upon being placed under a blanket produce baby marionettes. I have mixed feelings about what the puppets added to the production and would not have missed them or the ballet.
There can be no complaints about Freiburger Barockorcheter conducted by Andrea Marcon. Their performances were superb.
Jones and Ultz have achieved a dramatic re-imagination of Ariodante that has some brilliant touches, some brow-raising moments and some awkward scenes. Doing that with and 18th century opera, set in 8th century Scotland and keeping us entertained and enthralled for four hours, can only be classified as a major achievement.
Torontonians who are not in Aix-en-Provence this July will be able to see this production in the next few years done by the Canadian Opera Company. Otherwise, they will have to wait until the Lyric Opera of Chicago produces it. The COC, Lyric and the Dutch National Opera are co-producers of Ariodante.
Ariodante by Georg Frideric Handel opened on July 3 and will be performed six times until July 18, 2014 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/