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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Ariodante, HWV33 (1734)
Ariodante - Ann Murray (mezzo); Ginevra - Joan Rodgers (soprano); Lurcanio - Paul Nilon (tenor); Polinesso - Christopher Robson (counter-tenor); Dalinda - Julie Kaufmann (soprano); The King of Scotland - Umberto Chiummo (bass); Odoardo - James Anderson (tenor)
Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
rec. January, 2000, Bavarian National Opera.  DDD.
Booklet with notes, texts and translations
FARAO CLASSICS B108030 [3 CDs: 63:27 + 63.33 + 53:09]
Experience Classicsonline

This version of Ariodante seems to have been released as long ago as 2000, soon after it was recorded, deleted and now reissued.  If the deletion was due to poor initial sales, I hope that its reappearance will remedy the problem: this version has a great deal going for it.
There is a considerable overlap of personnel between this Bavarian production of 2000 and that of the English National Opera in 1996 – Ann Murray, Joan Rodgers, Christopher Robson and the conductor, Ivor Bolton, also feature on that earlier production, available on DVD (Arthaus Musik 100 064).  One reviewer called this ENO production ‘Handel comme il faut’.  That comment is equally true of this reissued Farao recording, but, bearing in mind that the DVD set is actually likely to cost you less than the new CDs, those who like to see as well as hear opera will doubtless go for those well-regarded Arthaus DVDs or the Dynamic DVDs which my colleague RMcK recently made Recording of the Month (33559 – see review).
The English National Opera revival of their production in June, 2006, was broadcast on BBC Radio 3; I have listened to the recording which I made of that broadcast with great pleasure.  Though much less well known than Nicholas McGegan, who directed an earlier ENO revival and also recorded the opera for Harmonia Mundi (HMU90 7146.78, highlights on HMU90 7277), Christopher Moulds presided over a well-considered performance, with Alice Coote in the title role and Rebecca Evans as Ginevra.  One notices from the outset the slightly faster tempo of Ivor Bolton’s version of the Overture, which nevertheless does not oust Moulds’ account from my affections.
In fact, though Bolton is faster, the playing of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra actually sounds slightly heavier at first – this is no chamber group.  Not that there is a great deal in it – both sets of players, though employing modern instruments, effectively capture a truly Handelian style.  In neither version is the continuo particularly audible, which is better than having a massive close-miked harpsichord, but not ideal.
Bolton maintains slightly faster tempi throughout the opera, especially in Acts II and III.  Less able singers might sometimes sound rushed at these marginally fleeter speeds, but all involved here sing well enough for this not to be a serious problem.  Just occasionally I felt that the singers would have preferred a slightly more sedate pace.  The second and third acts each take five minutes shorter in all than the ENO/Moulds account, probably because the cast by then found themselves much more in accord with the direction, allowing Bolton to move at his ideal pace.
Allowing for the vagaries of live performance, all concerned acquit themselves well.  I had no complaints about the ENO singers, but the Bavarian cast has a slight edge.  After a slightly hesitant start Ann Murray is superb – just listen to her account of Scherza infida in grembo al drudo (CD2, tr.5) to be won over.  Christopher Robson is about as effective and villainous a Polinesso as a counter-tenor can be; most would probably prefer Patricia Bardon’s mezzo account of the role for ENO.  The only common factor between London and Bavaria is Paul Nilon’s account of Lurcanio; he sings very well on both versions.
I recently praised the musical content of Ivor Bolton’s Rodelinda highly, though castigating some of the more crass aspects of the production – see review; those musical virtues are again in evidence here – and, paradoxically, the photographs from the production contained in the booklet suggest that the (unseen) production was much more to the point than that of Rodelinda.  In fact, I understand that David Alden’s ENO/Welsh Opera production was employed for the Munich performances.  Paradoxically, therefore, whereas I now play the Rodelinda as sound-only, via my audio system, I find myself wishing that Farao had released Ariodante on DVD, if only to help unravel some of the complexities of the plot.  The well-paced performance and the quality of the performers, together with the assistance in the booklet, does help, but it would have been nice to have seen the action.
The booklet offers David Alden’s raison d’être for his production, offering a view of the opera which may raise a few hackles – I note that one reviewer in 2000 was more than a little mystified by it.  The recorded sound is good – if anything, slightly better than the BBC broadcast of the ENO performance.   Neither can match the balance of a studio event: the Farao is a little too close for my liking, but a slight reduction in volume is all that is needed.  It’s a small price to pay, in my opinion, for the extra excitement of a live performance.
The recording comes in a conventional 3-CD jewel box, with the booklet fitting into a recess in the box.  The outer slipcase is, therefore redundant – the only point of such a case would be to house a booklet too large to fit inside the jewel case or to keep three separate CDs together – it’s likely to get scuffed and torn in short order.
I shall play this version more often than the ENO, but I must point out that the classic Janet Baker and Raymond Leppard set remains available on two Philips reissues – that on Trio 473 9552 is the cheaper.  Janet Baker is one of those special singers whom I would happily hear in a rendition of the phone book. Her Handel is extra-special because I remember her wonderful performance in Orlando at Sadler’s Wells over forty years ago. However fans of the authentic will find Leppard’s direction more dated than Bolton’s.  I’ve even seen Leppard’s direction described as ‘stuffy’ by comparison with modern preferences.
You’d need to be a bigoted purist not to like this version, but lovers of authenticity will be better served by the McGegan version to which I have referred above, with Lorraine Hunt in the title role, or by Mark Minkowski with Anne Sofie von Otter on DG Archiv (457 271-2).  I can’t claim that this Farao reissue is quite in the category of the Baker/Leppard, the Hunt/McGegan or the von Otter/Minkowski but it is certainly good enough to be mentioned in the same sentence.
Brian Wilson


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