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S & H Opera Review

Handel, 'Ariodante' English National Opera, March 9th 2002 (ME)


 

This beautiful production returns to the Coliseum, having first been seen in 1993; it is especially welcome at present, since it is a reminder to both main houses that it is possible to stage such works with flair, intelligence and sensitivity to the piece whilst still involving modern audiences in an original and thought-provoking way. Instead of passing it on to a minion to be 're-worked,' the original director, David Alden, returned to direct the new cast, and it showed, for this was not a pale imitation but a fully thought - through piece of music drama.

When the curtain rises, we are in the same kind of world as Nick Hytner's 'Xerxes,' that of fresh, light evocatively painted sets and precise, deliciously pointed dance work from the attendant royal servants. Every setting works; the delicately rococo drawing - room with its faux portals, the surreal landscapes seen in pictorial frame, the simple yet glowingly effective black drop with its sparkling chandelier reflections. The production itself works on every level - visually, emotionally, theatrically- and not just because money has been spent on it, not because it has been beautifully designed, not because it takes us back to the days of regarding such operas as extravaganzas - but because the director has fully thought through the implications of every single relationship presented on stage. Moreover, he draws from his singers performances which come as near as can be imagined to achieving that blend of the naturalistic and the dramatic without which opera is essentially meaningless.

Sally Burgess is a great singing actress; her stage presence and total commitment are always a joy, but she was really not suited to the role of Polinesso, previously taken here by the counter - tenor Christopher Robson. It is indeed true that the role's first interpreter was a contralto, Maria Caterina Negri, but this was by necessity rather than choice, since Handel at that time had no 'second man' to play such a role, it having been difficult enough to find a replacement for Senesino, who had recently defected to the company of the composer's major rival. Burgess simply does not have the right tone for the role, and she had to fudge much of the passage work, but she acts it with tremendous verve, almost at times too much so.

Mary Nelson's Dalinda was a joy from start to finish; this very young soprano is an artist of the highest promise, and I look forward to hearing her in many more roles. Her voice is beautiful in tone and used with the most scrupulous musicality, and she acts with natural grace. I was less impressed with Catrin Wyn Davies' Ginevra; the voice is fairly small for the part, and her passage work is not entirely accurate, but this may well have been the result of indisposition. Eric Owens blustered manfully as her father, Finnur Bjarnason made a telling impact in the tiny role of Odoardo, and Paul Nilon presented a Lurcanio of tremendous verve and commitment; it seems to be this tenor's fate to always be absurdly costumed at ENO, but he does not seem to mind, and it certainly does not affect his warm, cultivated singing.

Ariodante is a natural role for Sarah Connolly, and she presents it with tremendous artistry whilst not quite equalling Janet Baker's searing portrayal and highly charged, mellifluous singing. Nevertheless, she is a wonderful Ariodante who gives us aria after aria sung with total security of line and exceptional variety in both tone colour and decoration; her opening to 'Qui d'amor nel suo linguaggio' was ideally tender and exquisitely shaped, and 'Doppo Notte' was a real tour de force. Probably her finest moment, appropriately, was the long scena 'E vivo ancora..Scherza infida,' aptly translated as 'Take Your Pleasure,' where she held the house enraptured with the nobility and dignity of her singing; '..In the arms of death I'll languish' is sung some eleven times during this aria, yet each repeat seemed to give a new depth to Ariodante's grief.

Harry Christophers' direction of the orchestra seemed a little reticent at first, but as the evening went on he drew incisive, exciting playing from the small group, especially in the accompaniments to the recitatives and arias, which were shaped with sympathetic skill. A great evening, reminding us that it is possible to stage Handel's operas in convincing and engaging ways.

Melanie Eskenazi


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