Reviewed at the Britten Theatre, London
This thoughtful, economical production affords a rare opportunity to witness one of Handel's richest operas live on stage. If most of us know Ariodante at all, it is probably via one of the star-packed recordings (Leppard, McGegan, Minkowski) rather than through a visit to the opera house.
After an early 18th-century flurry the opera was not performed again in the UK until 1964, and even now it surfaces only rarely. Hats off, then, to English Touring Opera for capping their five-opera Handelfest with this revival of James Conway's 2003 production.
In its unadulterated form Ariodante is a slender, unconvincing tale whose pivotal action occurs offstage. It takes four hours to tell (with intervals), it has seven significant roles and it calls for a chorus and a dance troupe to make brief but financially extravagant appearances. Little wonder it is such a stranger to the opera house. Conway recognises the work's inherent problems and attacks them ruthlessly. He tightens the dramatic focus and strengthens the work's inner logic by shifting its locale from the colourful grandiosity of the court to the dour world of an auld Scottish manse, setting it for good measure against a lowering landscape.
Choreography and choral numbers are ditched in the switch, to the benefit of the running time as well as the drama, although vestigial traces remain in a weird opening dance and in the closing chorus performed by all six characters (the seventh, Odoardo, having been conflated to no great detriment with Nathan Vale's mellow-toned Lurcanio).
The King of Scotland imagined by librettist Antonio Salvi is demoted to citizen status in Conway's production. Now called Donald (why not Donaldo, I wonder?), he is a pious man of wealth and influence who has a big say in the appointment of local clergymen. Two hopeful candidates, Ariodante and Polinesso, vie not only for the livings but for the hand of Donald's daughter, Ginevra. It can only end in tears.
Straight from the Overture it's clear we're in for an evening as visually arid as it is musically excellent. Our two clerics are discovered locked in a symbolic game of chess, with Polinesso clearly cheating his way to checkmate. None of the assembled company seems particularly happy with life, but with their sombre costumes and Michael Vale's drab décor who can blame them? A stormy seascape (or a poor backdrop of one) dominates the opera throughout, even during the celebratory finale - a decision that James Conway rationalises by highlighting the psychological damage Polinesso has inflicted on Ginevra.
Ariodante's great lament, Scherza Infida ( ‘Love undying' in Conway's translation), emerges gloriously in the burnished, even timbre of Anne Marie Gibbons. Fresh from moonlighting on the podium for Flavio, the counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny invests Polinesso with a powerful, Iago-like quality. His sinister presence has vocal distinction in all but the most low-lying passages of this taxing role. As Dalinda, Ginevra's confidante, Katherine Manley is lumbered with the opera's most ill-shaped character, but she too is vocally superb.
After a worrying start, Rachel Nicholls eases into the role of Ginevra; it's just a pity that her role should be one of the chief casualties of the production's directorial misjudgements. I'm sure that the moment our heroine collapses in despair should not seem quite so funny; but timing is the essence of comedy, even when it's unintended. Revival director Robin Norton-Hale's antennae should have been more keenly attuned to the risk of bathos.
This is, nonetheless, a thrilling evening in which vocal glories are matched by outstanding playing from ETO's baroque orchestra. It's odd to catch oneself grinning in delight while the onstage Scots are suffering so much, but that's Handel for you. Or, more accurately, that's the excellent Benjamin Bayl, whose conducting is marked by flawless tempo choices and a precise ear for stage-pit balance. Forget the shaky stagecraft; the three short hours of ETO's Ariodante are sheer bliss.