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Posts Tagged ‘Handel’s Ariodante’

Although it is a well established fact that the leading man in a baroque opera would be sung by a singer in the soprano or alto range regardless of its gender, modern audiences may be ready to discuss transgender rights, but they take a while to see a male role taken by a woman or a female role taken by a man – something that the regular opera goer in the XVIIIth century would find perfectly normal. In the case of Handel’s Ariodante, first performed in London in 1735, the knight Ariodante was sung by the castrato Carestini (whose range was ambiguous, having started as soprano and ended up as an alto), while the bad guy Polinesso was given to the contralto Maria Caterina Negri. Director Christof Loy too seems to be puzzled by this fact and decided to bring the sexual ambiguities in casting during the baroque to the spotlight of his staging for the Salzburg Festival. Even if the issue was a non-issue for Handel, his librettist and his audience, Mr. Loy begs to differ and resorts to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, excerpts of which are read before acts I and III, to show how Ariodante and his beloved Ginevra lost themselves in their gender identities and found themselves again only when they have found the female and male elements of their identities under a distant Lacanian inspiration. There is indeed something to be “read” there: Ariodante is a lover rather than a warrior and Ginevra is first a princess and then a bride. It is Polinesso, the high-testosterone bad guy, who polarizes everybody: he sexually harasses Ginevra and tries hard to make her a damsell in distress, while he twists Ariodante around his little finger and puts him out of the competition without much effort. When faced by Polinesso’s macho agenda, Ariodante acts emo: he tries to kill himself until he decides to pretend he has killed himself, while letting everybody else in the plot deal with HIS problem. On the other hand, Ginevra takes fate in her own hands: she denies the accusations made against her, accepts her death, refuses to have any guy championing her in duel and is only worried about her glory (the number one concern of every hero).

Now it seems that I fully subscribe Mr. Loy’s Dramaturgie. Unfortunately, no. I found it staged on face value,  the whole concept reduced to caricature by the portrayal of these characters’ psychological “journey” almost exclusively by having them crossdressed. The massive amounts of comedy in an opera seria doesn’t help it either, making it impossible to find any depth behind every scene when everything is played for laugh and easy effects. As the cast is mostly adept in acting skills, one felt entertained but never enlightened by the proceedings. As always with this director, sets and costumes are exquisite. The playing with different epochal styles could have been more effective if more sharply defined – as in Stefan Herheim’s Xerxes for the Berlin Komische Oper. Here, Handel’s baroque seemed underrepresented, while Classicism seems to have pride of place if rather generalized as something opposed to “contemporary”. Choreographer Andreas Heise was able to avoid that, for instance, in his intelligent deconstruction of XVIIIth century ballet.

If I write in such length about the scenical side of this performance, it is because the musical one left a lot to be desired. Conductor Gianluca Capuano seems to be there only to serve the scenical needs, adapting his tempi and phrasing to the gestures and blocking on stage, playing all arie di bravure in the egg-timer approach for extremely rough results and overcooking the sentimentality of all arie d’affetto. The orchestra never had an expressive “say” in any number and, after a while, everything sounded unsubtle, unclear and inexpressive. The fact that the Musiciens du Prince has scrawny strings and the kind of meagerness of sound that makes the bad reputation of period-instrument groups made this more problematic. I don’t truly understand the cavalier treatment of Handel’s score in what regards additional percussion and funny phrasing effects. As for the edition, which involved the deletion of some B sections and simplification of some numbers (most inexplicably of Bramo aver mille vite, considering the abilities of the singers involved), it was more inclusive than some and, in the context of this performance, quite welcome.

My appreciation for Cecilia Bartoli could be defined as “work in progress”, but I have found her Handelian prima donna roles some of her best work. For instance, her Alcina in Zurich last December was beautiful and mostly satisfying. Her incursion in the primo uomo repertoire not really so. First of all, her lack of projection and focus does not really serve the heroic quality associated to these roles. Next to her, someone like Lorraine Hunt sounds like a Fiorenza Cossotto in comparison in terms of richness and slancio. In order to disguise that, all bravura pieces are performed extremely fast in spiccato runs very light on the voice and approached as slapstick comedy. The more pensive numbers generally show the best in Ms. Bartoli, but her voice sounded ill at ease in the lower end of her voice. In any case, Dopo notte was the highlight of her performance, a very exciting display of precision in extremely fast tempo.

Her prima donna was American soprano Kathryn Lewek (Ginevra), whose fruity, creamy soprano, clean fioriture and exceptional control of high notes (amazing messa di voce effects) make her a natural in this repertoire. If she developes a more idiomatic Italian, she will have very few rivals in it. A beautiful performance. Sandrine Piau was also very well cast as Dalinda, offering haunting mezza voce and singing expressively throughout. Christophe Dumaux (Polinesso) forceful extra-clear coloratura, well-focused tone and charisma ensured that he was the most interesting person on stage. He was also extremely naughty with his very long breath, stunning the audience with kilometric phrases without internal pauses. I still believe that Handel knew what he was doing on casting the part with a contralto (just check Ewa Podles in Marc Minkowski’s recording), but no countertenor comes close to what Mr. Dumaux has done this evening. When it comes to Rolando Villazón’s singing as Lucanio, yes, it has Donizetti splashed all over, but it is so emotionally invested and wrapped in velvety, dulcet tone that one cannot resist it. He tackled the difficult passagework quite commendably if a bit roughly. In any case, the dueto with Dalinda was the most magical moment this evening. Nathan Berg too sang sensitively, but his grainy bass lacks nobility of tone and he has his wayward moments with intonation.

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Ariodante is the last item in the Handel opera series presented in Braunschweig (among other stations in Europe) with Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis. With Joyce DiDonato in the title role, this was probably its most sought-after concert – and one can easily imagine how disappointed the audience felt when they learned the news of her cancelling the whole tournée. In her place, it was announced the name of Caitlin Hulcup, whom I had previously seen as a charming Meg in Verdi’s Falstaff – I know, hardly information enough to gauge how efficient she could be in one of Handel’s most difficult primo uomo roles.  In retrospect, I can say that I am almost happy that I had the opportunity of hearing a bit more from this Australian mezzo-soprano. To start with, her tone can be so reminiscent of Lorraine Hunt’s that one cannot help but developing a favorable disposition, especially in this role in which this late Handelian singer was something of a reference. Even if Hulcup has a less consistently solid low register, her clear and fluent coloratura, crystalline diction, stylish phrasing and dramatic commitment procure her a prominent place in this repertoire. I would say her direct, dense and noble Scherza, infida is one of the best I have ever heard, live or in recordings. She was ideally matched by Karina Gauvin’s rich-toned, fluent, expressive and regal Ginevra. Sabina Puértolas has a pleasant, sensuous voice, but her high register is somewhat taut and her diction can be improved (her Italian has a touch of the other Mediterranean peninsula), but she could make something more interesting of Dalinda than what I am used to see. Nicholas Phan finds Lurcanio’s tessitura a bit uncongenial and would have to wait for his duet with the soprano to shine in his dulcet mezza voce. The role of the King of Scotland is a bit low for Matthew Brook too and yet he sang nobly and expressively. Then there is Marie-Nicole Lemieux. While I admire her spirit and energy, this is no replacement for proper technique. The plethora of antics, register inconsistencies and approximative fioritura often veered in the grotesque, and this is not what Handel wanted in this role.

I often find Alan Curtis a conductor more concerned about warm, beautiful orchestral sound and gracious rhythms – and so he showed himself in the first part of the evening. After the intermission, though, the proceedings increasingly gained in impetus, in theatricality and in panache. By the end, it was quite a gripping performance. The orchestra had no small share of responsibility there – they often reacted to the singers in a very organic and effective way. I would say that this was more compelling than the recording released by Virgin Classics (if not as exciting as Marc Minkowski’s for Deutsche Grammophon). The edition performed tonight was sadly heavily cut – not so much in the sense of deleted numbers (Dalinda’s Il primo ardor, maybe the King’s Al sen ti stringo…), but in the deletion of the B section and repeats in a great deal of numbers – most unforgivably the lovely duet Bramo aver mille vite. It may be my imagination, but I had the impression that Ariodante’s Con l’ali di costanza showed some discrepancies to what I am used to hear.

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Although I don’t have a thousand lives to consecrate to Handel, I could spare two or three nights to complete the review of Alan Curtis’s video of Handel’s Ariodante from Spoleto. You can check it on re: opera. More Handel operas will follow – so check back in a few days.

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Listening to the broadcast of Handel’s Ariodante from Geneva (November 17th), I began to fear that a new and definitely unwelcome fashion may have crept into the performance style of Handel works. The two or three readers of this weblog may remember my opinion about Magdalena Kozená’s new Handel disc. Apparently, the Czech mezzo-soprano is not the only victim of this quasi Schwarzkopfian heavy interpretative style.

Although Switzerland recalls rather cold clockwork precision, the highly talented group of singers gathered there is amazingly heavy-handed in their treatment of Handel, as if they were trying to infuse large doses of theatricality and drama in every syllable, regardless if the patient actually needs this medicine – or if he is, for that matter, really ill.

It is true that there is a preconceived notion that Handel’s music is rather graceful than powerful and that his operas’ contrived libretti are helpless. But that is the prejudiced opinion. Artists should know better and this new let’s-help-the-composer-to-get-his-point-clear approach is ultimately offensive to the genius who created these impressive and undying masterpieces. Although these singers might have the impression that they are giving their hearts and soul to Handel while pumping their own emotionalism and excitement into Handel’s music, they are actually being narcissistic and concentrating too much in their own excitement. I know that there is no historical evidence whatsoever of how a singer should tackle interpretation of Handel operas, but I would simply let the music speak for itself too see which approach fits the music better.

We must always keep in mind that, although human feelings are always the same, the way they are portrayed in art has changed a lot. I am sure that there are lots of people in New York or Paris who were born with a post-modern Weltanschauung, but the rest of us tend to have a default Romantic point-of-view. This is probably why most people see baroque opera as cold technical display. However, those who have interest in baroque art and its complex code of expression, the affetti, will understand that these works are immerse in emotions, once you open your eyes to the peculiarities of its aesthetics. When a singer drowns the purity of a line with Puccinian vibrant top notes and parlando effects, he is presenting nothing other than a transvesti of a performance, neither powerful in the way a Wagnerian or a Verdian would recognise it nor satisfying in its unstylishness for those who happen to care about that.

When you listen to Lorraine Hunt’s Scherza, infida, there are no artifficially inserted interpretative reminders of Ariodante’s predicaments; the much lamented late American mezzo-soprano’s performance is a single profound statement of pain and despair. Her inbuilt intensity doesn’t need to go against Handelian phrases; on the contrary, it invests Handelian lines, it reveals the expression reserved in the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic brushstrokes with which the master portrayed that particular dramatic situation.

Although Waltraud Meier probably never sang any note by Handel in her life, I remember an interview of hers in which she says that the great challenge for an artist is to surrender. Singers tend to clad themselves with ideas before they go on stage in order to produce this or that impression – but according to Meier letting the music speak by itself is the ultimate courageous act: going before the audience and not trying to produce this or that impression but open yourself to the whole spectrum of expressive possibilities. Of course, this is risky business if you don’t have artistic maturity.

Anyway, back to Geneva, I have to confess the main issue is, of course, Joyce DiDonato. She is a great Handelian singer whose purity of line, technical finish and good taste rarely let the listener down. Curiously, the only time I really did not connect to a performance by her was watching her DVD of Handel’s Hercules, in which her Dejanira was so expressionistically handled that I couldn’t help thinking she was having far more fun than I was. Her Ariodante does not reach that level of schyzophrenia, but again I did not recognise her in that over-the-top approach which only made her voice tense and her singing a bit unstylish. When Patricia Petibon does that in the same performance, it does not surprise me. I always have the impression she is trying to sing Verdi’s La Forza del Destino into baroque music, making her damsells in distress sound nothing but particularly hysterical.

I have read that DiDonato is really going deep into her portrayal of Alcina, studying the text with thorough investigative eye and discovering many and many things, but I hope the results are not preciosistic and overambitious, that all those discoveries of hers will illuminate rather than overshadow the dramatic truth she is looking for. It would be a pity to see her fall in the same trap Kozená could not avoid.

PS – On second thought, I realise I was unfair to speak about the cast in Geneva’s Ariodante in a generic way. I should point out that Varduhi Abrahamyan is an outstanding Polinesso, a name to watch, and that Amanda Forsythe and Charles Workman are quite commendable in the parts of Dalinda and Lucanio. Patricia Petibon herself has indeed some beautiful moments, but most of the time she is trying to pour Medea-like intensity into the role of the vulnerable Ginevra. If she had a Medea-like voice, one could discuss if this is a valid possibility. As for Joyce DiDonato, I have the impression that, although she sang it unfailingly well, the role is a bit low for her voice and if you overlook the almost verismo-like pathos of Scherza, infida or Cieca notte, there is a breathtaking Doppo notte sung with true technical aplomb. I must point out that reviewers who saw the opera live tended to have the opposite opinion of mine – I am sure that live at the theatre the visuals must have given sense to a musical performance that sounds overdone when listened to alone.

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