Georg Friedrich Handel - Ariodante
Theater Basel, 2012
Luca Tittoto, Franziska Gottwald, Maya Boog, Nikolay Borchev, Christiane Bassek, Agata Wilewska, Noel Hernández Lopez
Basel, Switzerland, 17 May 2012
This is obviously very much a personal view, but the best approach to staging Baroque opera seems to be to avoid the traditional approach at all costs. By all means stick to the traditional in terms of singing and period instrumentation - there really isn’t any alternative that works better - but in my experience, if you want to find a way to engage a modern audience and take them through the rather static drama and the rather stiff conventions of the repetitive da capo arias of Baroque opera, it helps if there is some inventiveness and an imaginative approach to the staging. Done straight, it can be difficult to lift or support the emotions that are being expressed at length in the long arias between the few moments of dramatic content - although this obviously depends on the composer and Handel is certainly an exception - but until relatively recently, it was supposed that hardly any Baroque opera, not even Handel, could ever be presented to a modern audience.
Thankfully, through painstaking research, restoration and training in period instruments from Baroque musical experts like William Christie, Jordi Savall, René Jacobs and Christophe Rousset, have proved that these works are of much more than just interest to music historians. Staging these works however is another matter altogether, and it often requires a radical approach. I’m thinking of Doris Dörrie’s Noh-theatre inspired direction of Handel’s Admeto, the Royal Opera House’s 2010 production of Steffani’s Niobe or, as when I last visited the Theater Basel, the WWII updating of Gluck’s Telemaco, but as seen with William Kentridge’s production of Die Zauberflöte, there are also a wider range of tools that can be at service to a director of personal vision and imagination. In my experience - again this is very much a personal viewpoint - it’s surprising just how successful some of the more radical presentations can be in this respect, the more abstract conceptual stage approach tapping into the emotional content over and above the dry recounting of the narrative of the libretto. I don’t think however that I’ve ever seen anything quite as ambitious as director Stefan Pucher and the Theater Basel’s wonderful willingness to experiment with Baroque opera through modern theatrical tools in their extraordinary 2012 production of Handel’s Ariodante.
When you speak about the stage direction here however, it’s necessary to consider the input from the innovative and visually impressive set design by Barbara Ehnes and the costumes of Annabelle Witt, as Stefan Pucher’s stage direction is truly a multimedia event. It’s through these different layers - along with the lighting, the use of projected images and even filmed sequences projected onto the sets - that the different layers of the music, the interaction of the characters and the heightened emotions are fully explored, much more so than the usual static delivery of the long arias. It’s not that all the necessary qualities aren’t already there in Handel’s exquisite compositions that capture the sentiments of its characters so well, but the staging simply allows an audience to see them visualised and respond to those qualities from an older operatic tradition that would otherwise seem almost unfathomable to anyone used to a more modern or traditional approach.
There’s nothing particularly inspiring about Ariodante’s late-eighth century Scottish setting, but theatre director Stefan Pucher - in his first opera production - clearly recognises that this ancient setting and the opera seria music that accompanies it is so far removed from what we are familiar with as to be practically abstract anyway. What is still relevant is the opera’s human story of love, jealousy, deception and revenge, and that was given utmost consideration. Act I then accordingly provided a tartan overload in the most extravagant of colours and weaves that, if they might not relate to any specific clan, certainly gave each of the figures their own strong definition. The tartan stretched to the brightly lit and visually impressive set designs that seems to create an enhanced 3-D effect through the still images, gothic paintings (by 17th century artist Otto Marseus van Schrieck), slow moving projections and lighting effects on the foreground screens, while the singing platform was set back on a revolving stage within a wide inverted cross. The sets inside were rather minimal, with a few eccentric touches in keeping with the Schrieck imagery such as giant bugs and slugs in an orange room in Act 1, but the frequent refreshing of the set from scene to scene all contributed to keep attention from flagging.
Even this would eventually have become tiresome over the course of the whole opera, but the designers also managed to find a distinct visual look for each of the subsequent two acts, if it was never a look that related naturalistically to any location specified in the libretto. A kick-boxing match standing-in for the battle between Polinesso and Ariodante on the jousting grounds was perhaps the strangest sight in Act III. Showing that there was a complete understanding of the structure of the works however and the necessary impact that was written into the chorus and ballet finales of each of the acts, the director pulled out all the stops at these points, inviting the audience to sing along to ‘Sì godete al vostro amor’ from music sheets handed out to the audience when entering the theatre (a surprisingly invigorating experience), and using filmed outdoor sequences featuring the cast, which was also extremely effective in suggesting the depths of Ginevra’s madness and inner turmoil at the end of Act II. More than just being visually stunning, the whole multimedia experience encompassed the tone and the intent of the music score, as well as drawing in the viewer and involving them fully in the experience. It made the production - the finest I think I’ve seen during the 2011-12 season - absolutely riveting.
It was not so riveting however that attention wouldn’t occasionally be drawn to the wonderful playing of this magnificent opera on period instruments by the La Cetra Barockorchester Basel under the direction of Andrea Marcon. Even they were visually integrated into the spectacle, placed on a platform that would rise and sink at the start and end of each act like an old-fashioned cinema organist, allowing the music to take centre stage where appropriate. Just as importantly, there was full attention given to the direction of the performers, who were never allowed to become just singing props that fitted into the overall package, and with the kind of singing we were hearing here, there was even less likelihood of them being overwhelmed by the spectacle. Mezzo-sporano Franziska Gottwald demonstrated a breathtaking range and facility for the demanding arias assigned to Ariodante, and was particularly impressive in Act II’s ‘Scherza infida’. Maya Boog however was just as impressive as Ginevra, handling the arias with aplomb, but also acting with genuine emotional and dramatic conviction throughout. There were however no weak elements in the casting which also included Agata Wilewska as Dalinda, Luca Tittoto as the King, Nikolay Borchev as Lurciano and Christiane Bassek as a disturbingly moustachioed, long-haired villain Polinesso, and Noel Hernández Lopez as Odoardo.