Theatre Royal, Glasgow

16th & 18th & 20th Feb

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

24th & 27th Feb

Jennifer France as Dalinda and Sarah Tynan as Ginevra in Ariodante. Scottish Opera 2016. Credit James Glossop..JPG

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There is something just so ‘marvellous’ about the Handelian opera, especially for we Britishers who, spurning the Itialianate prediliction for endless recitivas, prefer our opera to be aria-heavy. So let us welcome Scottish Opera’s latest offering, Ariodante, the second part of the Ariosto trilogy, marking 400 years since the publication of the poem ‘Orlando Furioso‘ (1516) from which the tales are drawn. Indeed, Ariodante is brought to us by the same creative team which  gave us 2001’s Orlando: director Harry Fehr, designer Yannis Thavoris & choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones. Their production sees two singers make their debut with ScotOp; Sarah Tynan & Xavier Sabata as Duke Polinesso, while Caitlin Hulcup makes a welcome returns in the lead after her sensational Orfeo in last year’s Orfeo ed Euridice. She is very realistic as the desperate lover, Ariodante, her boyish beauty & effeminate charm blending together most excellently well, & served up on the platter of her delicately brilliant voice. This androgenous opera needs three stunning-voiced women to pull off these days – the castrato’s ‘voice of choice’ must be replaced by the mezza-soprano, of which Hulcup’s was a perfect solution. She is an  mesmerising lead who enters her part with what appears to be a  well-reaserched, well-nuanced vigour.

Caitlin Hulcup as Ariodante. Scottish Opera 2016. Credit James Glossop. (6).JPG

Caitlin Hulcup as Ariodante

According to  ScotOp’s director, Alex Reedijk, Ariosto is ‘a high-stakes game of love, betrayal & deceit,’ & boy is it beautiful stuff. An opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel, there is a cloud of melancholy which hangs over everything; a dark mass in GMinor (the same key Mozart used for the Night of the Soul) alleviated occasionally by the brightest little moments of pure joy. The plot has Ariosto due to wed his princess, but unfortunately, in the tradition of the best of pantomime villains, a scheming Duke Polinesso gets involved & messes everything up.Of course he too is in love with Ginevra, who responds top his advances with a curt, ‘a harpy would not be as loathesome as you, sir.’ Xavier is a sensation as the Duke, & for me was the brooding, plotting, chauntingly beautiful star of the show. Robert Thicknesse writes; ‘one effect of Handel’s editing is that the villain Polinesso remains eniogmatic – a very modern evil that exists for its own enjoyment. Polinesso is a black magician, an illusionist, a devilish character who is also there, paradoxically, to show these innocents what the world can do., the night-horrors they have never conceived, blinded by the sun of their endless days – & to offer them the chance of becoming better.’

Enter Dalinda, a servant girl, played by ScotOp’s emerging artist 2015-16, Jennifer France. The poor lass is completely enfatuated with Polinesso, who keeps her onside with the occasional wooing aria & visceral slippy finger between her thighs right upon the stage (my grandmother wouldn’t have approved). Polinesso’s plan involves Dolinda dressing up as the Princess & convincing Ariosto she is having an affair with the Duke. ‘What power love has – I can deny him nothing,’ sighs Dolinda – ‘the die is cast,‘ surmises the Duke.  This nice slice of Shakespearean cross-dressing sends Ariosto off into a exiled depression which is only saved by a repenten Dolinda confessing all to him & the subsequent reconciliation & timely death of the evil duke.

Xavier Sabata as Polinesso in Ariodante. Scottish Opera 2016. Credit James Glossop. (2).JPG

Xavier Sabata as Duke Polinesso

Considered as one of Handel’s best librettos – he souped up Antonio Salvi’s original (Ginevra) by dropping the long-winded recitivas, chucking in a few dances from the Covent Garden troupe & shuffling the scenes about, all in accordance with the growing Georgian taste for opera. This was Handel at the heart of one of his most creative periods, the ‘Terpsichorean Interlude’ (1734-35) which saw the the creation of his greatest operas, including Alcina, written in tandem with Ariodnate. Three centuries later, Harry Fehr has also felt inspired to tinker with the latter’s libretto, reinstating some of Salvi’s abandoned scenes for dramatic effect, supporetd by music director, Derek Clark, who told the Mumble; ‘The harmonies themselves had to make ‘grammatical sense’ based on the rules Handel used – so, for example, no sudden unexpected discords – and, although I imagined the recititives with appoggiaturas (slight pitch changes which singers naturally add to their recitative lines to help them emphasise certain words, usually at the end of phrases), I had to keep remembering that Handel didn’t write them, as a rule, but left them to the singers’ discretion, so that the new recits would look as well as (hopefully) sound the same as the original ones.’

The first two acts of Ariosto are wonderful – full of lust & intrigue that sets the pulse bubbling – but the final act is more like a rapid procession of plot devices to reach the final duet where Ariosto & Ginevra are reunited. I put this down to Ariosto’s lack of the usual baroque sub-plots, which is a double-edged sword really as, although a linear simplicity is handy with opera, reneging on ‘substance’ often leads to such rollicking gallops to the finale as found in Ariodante. But what a finale – this last aria (of 31) simply made me want to leap out of my chair – all those extra notes, those 2 octave runs, OMG – which I did alongside a few happy strangers. I really do enjoy Handel’s instant ability to create harpsichord-embosomed emotion – as soon as his aria’s begin you know which mood-station he’s about to take you to. He is so real, an immediate presence that completely engages the & stimulates the viewer. No nodding off in the middle of a twenty-five minute Wagnerian lament here, kids! I also enjoy the ABA style of his arias, with the first section stating an exposition of whats been happening in the recitivas. Its a bit like the Terza Rima of Dante, a compositional structur which helps to create a promenading concert in the mind.

Lucy Ireland and Vince Virr (dancers) in Ariodante. Scottish Opera 2016. Credit James Glossop..JPG

First performed at the Covent Garden, 8th January 1735, the orchestra is small : where Wagner utilised 100 musicians, & Pucini 85, Handel only needed 30-35; resulting in a more intimate & personal experience, as opposed to the pomp of Continental bombast. This, of course, was perfectly captured by the Scottish Opera lot, & their performance was apractically flawless. the only weakness, I think, was Ginevra – played a little too softly, softly in the this post-feministic age – I think I wanted more emotion from Tynan. All in all, a fine performance of a fine opera. In Ariodante, all the singers need to be able to sing –  its damned complicated stuff which requires a tremendous flexibilty of the voice. Add to this the constantly evolving dramatic inflections & we are given a thrilling opera that is tough to pull off. Scottish Opera, I think, have done a fantastic job however, & I hope by surmounting this particular challenge they shall be ready to tackle an even tougher proposition in the future, such as Mozart’s ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio.’ The stagecraft  was at times a little too basic – I’ve seen those fake minature orange trees before, for example (outside the Aldi in Burnley) – though the WW1-era costume work was top-notch.  All in all a worthy effort.

Reviewer : Damo Bullen



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