Monday, June 30, 2008


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);

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).
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.

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.


  1. The costumes of Ariodante were very much based on Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, but the set absolutely did not match it, that's quite true.

    Directors don't know what to do with Baroque opera in general, they seem terribly afraid that the form is boring. That David Alden! Rodelinda was one of the least offensive of the 6 productions of his I have seen.

  2. Opera Tattler, thanks for the information about Matthew Stennett's costume designs being based on Tiepolo paintings. Indeed, Tiepolo, a contemporary of Handel, did paint scenes from Orlando Furioso, and he did portray these figures from the time of Charlemagne in 16th-century clothing amid settings vaguely suggestive of ancient Rome. (In this he was following the example of Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese.)

    However, if that was the design concept, someone should have brought set designer John Conklin on board. As you say, the slabs of dark marble which were the major set elements in Ariodante were not evocative of Tiepolo's visual world.

    And I agree with you as well that David Alden's Rodelinda wasn't offensive in the same sense as Wieler and Morabito's Alcina, where the directors' dislike and incomprehension of the opera was apparent in every scene. But I found that key moments in David Alden's Rodelinda (such as the farewell duet I mentioned in the post, Bertarido's wounding of his friend Unulfo--played for laughs, as I recall--and his killing of the evil henchman Garibaldo) were poorly staged and lacked emotional power. And setting any opera which takes place under a tyranny in fascist Italy (as in Rodelinda), or in Nazi Germany, or in the gangster underworld, is by now a cliche. Do we really need to have the bad guys identified for us by their black trenchcoats and fedoras?

    You're absolutely right that it's fear of boredom that drives all this. But there's plenty of drama in Baroque opera, if directors would simply take the time to look, and most of all, allow the music to express it unimpeded by the sorts of "ideas" I listed in the post.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. How very interesting, I did not know that about Tiepolo, as my interest in Venetian painting is limited to an earlier period (specifically Giovanni Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, and Titian).

    Those slabs of dark marble made me think of Bündnerfleisch when I first saw them, at least when they had a reddish light on them. The production is from 1987, and the set certainly looks like it is from that period.

    When I first saw Rodelinda in Munich I was terribly annoyed by that part with Unulfo, but that was the part that the audience reacted most to, they seemed to like it very much. But I found this production easy to tune out, unlike David Alden's other work, particularly his Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria.

    I think the only two productions of Baroque operas I have liked have been the Poppea in Los Angeles a few years ago (though it did have some extraneous elements) and the Iphigenie last summer at SF Opera (the chalk writing was silly, but overall I liked it much more than the Seattle Opera/Met co-production). The staging of Baroque operas seems to be quite a conundrum!

  4. While I didn't see the LA Opera staging of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea--alas, as it's one of my favorite operas--I agree with your comment about Robert Carsen's staging of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride at SF Opera last June. The stark minimalism of Carsen's production worked well with the bleak, stripped-down vision of Gluck and his librettist Guillard. And the deus ex machina moment at the end where the all-black set rose up and brilliant light flooded in was stunning.

    It should also be said that another key reason for the production's impact was Susan Graham's absolutely riveting performance in the title role; Bo Skovhus and Paul Groves were also compelling as Orestes and his companion Pylades. Great music-making and an intelligent production combined to make a very special experience in the theater.

    I'm hoping that the success of Iphigenie will encourage SF Opera to offer more Gluck (Alceste, perhaps?) in the near future.