The challenges of staging Baroque operas seem to present insoluble difficulties for San Francisco Opera. Ariodante, seen June 18, is the fifth Handel opera I've seen mounted by the company, and as with most of the others the vocal strengths of the cast were undermined by poor direction, a puzzling design concept, and generic costumes.
Ariodante's story is taken from Cantos 5 and 6 of Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso (1532), and takes place in exotic Scotland. The vassal knight Ariodante (Susan Graham) loves the king's daughter Ginevra (Ruth Ann Swenson), and she returns his love. Polinesso (Sonia Prina), however, has his own designs on the throne; he convinces Dalinda (Veronica Cangemi), Ginevra's lady-in-waiting, to dress in Ginevra's clothes and invite him into her chambers. Witnessing what he thinks is Ginevra's unfaithfulness, Ariodante flees the court and is reported to have killed himself. Meanwhile, his brother Lurcanio (Richard Croft) denounces Ginevra and demands justice for his brother; upholding his own law, the king (Eric Owens) is forced to condemn his daughter to death unless a champion is willing to defend her honor.
What is it about Handel that brings out the worst in opera directors? At SF Opera I've seen characters:
a. singing a gut-wrenching farewell love duet while standing 20 feet apart and facing the audience rather than each other (Rodelinda, directed by David Alden);That last offense was committed by director John Copley, who also directed Ariodante. He didn't repeat it in Ariodante, fortunately, but he missed many dramatic opportunities and staged at least two scenes (Dalinda's escape from Polinesso's assassins and Lurcanio's duel with Polinesso) so ineptly that the audience laughed out loud. The set designer, John Conklin, did no better: Ariodante is supposed to take place in Scotland, but the settings looked like Greek and Roman antiquity as reimagined for the lobby of a Las Vegas casino. And it's not clear that Conklin ever met or spoke with costume designer Matthew Stennett, whose generic Renaissance Faire costumes (which, frankly, looked like leftovers from his costumes for Giulio Cesare from a few seasons back) placed the action a millennium or more later, around the time of Ariosto.
b. repeatedly hurling clattering objects across the stage during another character's aria (Alcina, directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, guilty of many crimes against Handel);
c. disrobing a singer during her aria (Alcina again);
d. sexually groping a singer during her aria (Alcina yet again--different singer, different aria);
e. comically gesticulating throughout another character's sorrowful aria (Giulio Cesare).
Fortunately, for the most part you could just shut your eyes and revel in excellent singing of some of Handel's greatest music. In the title role, Susan Graham gave a harrowing account of "Scherza infida," Ariodante's searing aria of pain and despair after he witnesses what he thinks is Ginevra's unfaithfulness. Graham's performance of that aria was even more remarkable since Copley had her sing the last third of it lying flat on her back. As Ginevra, Ruth Ann Swenson's once-bright soprano seemed to have become a touch cloudy. The soft grain in the voice wasn't bothersome, however: it just gave it a quality more like velvet than satin. Sonia Prina's voice wasn't very alluring in tone; her voice lacks the richness I find especially appealing in some altos. But she fired off fiendishly difficult coloratura like a machine gun--it was jaw-dropping. Unfortunately, she was the tiniest person on stage, which did not lend credence to her portrayal of the swaggeringly evil Polinesso. Veronica Cangemi's Dalinda had the necessary vocal brightness, but conductor Patrick Summers took some of her arias at cruelly hard-driven tempos, forcing her to fudge some of the coloratura. As the king, Eric Owens offered a somewhat woolly bass voice, but the role did allow him to display his earth-shaking low notes.
The discovery of the evening for me was Richard Croft. His Lurcanio was sung in a soaring, lyrical tenor that never strained in its upper reaches, and had an almost baritonal warmth in its lower ones. What a voice! (And if you've read any of my other opera posts, you know that I don't even like tenors.) I'd love to see Croft in some other pre-19th century repertory; how about as Ulysses in Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria? Just a thought...
Croft sings Lurcanio on the excellent recording of Ariodante conducted by Marc Minkowski on Archiv. That recording also features the spine-shivering alto of Ewa Podles as Polinesso and a stunningly dramatic performance by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role. A good second choice is the version conducted by Nicholas McGegan on Harmonia Mundi, which features the glorious Lorraine Hunt (later Lieberson) as Ariodante, although her supporting cast isn't as accomplished as the one on the Minkowski recording. The DVD of Ariodante from the English National Opera directed for the stage by David Alden is to be avoided at all costs.