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
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.