Monday, 18 August 2014

Handel - Ariodante (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

George Friedrich Handel - Ariodante

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Andrea Marcon, Richard Jones, Sarah Connolly, Patricia Petibon, Sandrine Piau, Sonia Prina, David Portillo, Luca Tittoto, Christopher Diffey

Culturebox - Live Streaming, July 2014

In an interview in the programme for the Aix-en-Provence production of Ariodante, conductor Andrea Marcon notes the unique character of this work as an Italian opera with French influences and adornments written by a German composer for an English audience. One would think that it would be difficult to reconcile all those different elements, but Handel of course makes it all seem perfectly fluid and natural. It only makes the challenge harder for the conductor and the stage director to make a production of Ariodante run as smoothly for a modern theatre audience.

Andrea Marcon clearly has the measure of the work, and a great love for it, making a strong case for it being the 'perfect' Handel opera in its structure, in the strength of its melodies and arias, and in the consistency of its melancholic tone. His work is made considerably easier, I would say, by the quality of the orchestra and singers he is working with here at the Aix Festival. The Freiburger Barockorchester keep that essential rhythm and tone that is in the piece, while the real musical colour is there in the range and the variety of singing voices. The musical performance is accordingly of the highest order.

For his part, stage director Richard Jones seeks to find a down-to-earth consistency of tone in a work that would appear have so many international influences, and he finds that in the Scottish setting of Ariodante. There's nothing to be gained from going right back to the 8th century period of Antonio Salvi's libretto, based on Ariosto's 'Orlando Furioso', but the Scottish character of the work is important. Jones' references would seem to come from Michael Powell's Scottish islands feature film 'The Edge of the World' (1937), with something of the flavour of 'I Know Where I'm Going' (1945). Jones also cites Lars von Trier's 'Breaking the Waves', which is in indeed much more in line with the dark, melancholic and sometimes cruel tone of Ariodante.

The production design by Ultz gives us a more familiar and essentially timeless character that is modern without being quirkily modernised, far as it is from a royal tale of knights in the age of chivalry. Jones, for better or worse, sees Ariodante as more of a community drama, and as such it has something of the appearance of his Peter Grimes for La Scala. The outdoor Théâtre de l’Archevêché in Aix-en-Provence might also have had some bearing on the choice to have a single multi-purpose set, a cross section of a humble manor with four rooms separated by invisible walls and nominal doors, the dress sense that of island fisherman, fairisle sweaters, tanktops and weatherproofs.

It doesn't quite have the magical, the historical or the regal quality that you might like for this work, but Jones is able to differentiate between the social status and class differences of the characters. The king is more of a laird, but still the most important figure in the community, commanding respect. Polinesso is a firebrand preacher, which doesn't really seem to fit with his position as the Duke of Albany, but it does give him a role where he is capable of manipulating and influencing the local island people, stirring them up and using them for his own purposes. For the most part, it works reasonably well, with there being little that detracts from the drama or its musical flavour.

The best touch is the use of puppet storytelling. Imaginatively and impressively staged, they succeed in lifting the production at precisely those right moments at the finale of each act. It's challenging enough to make the choral arrangements and French ballets fit in with the drama, but they are well choreographed here as a traditional dance-hall céilidh. The end-of act puppet shows however give us a bit more of an extension beyond the life on the stage, Act I imagining married life for Ariodante and Ginerva, Act II creating a nightmarish vision of Ginerva's downfall, Act III reinstating the hoped for return to the vision of Act I. In Jones' production however, there's a recognition that there's no going back after what has happened, that Ginerva's life lies out beyond the island and that Act II nightmare descent into pole-dancing and prostitution might still be a possibility.

Despite its short run on its London opening in 1735, which is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the work, there is merit to the claim of Ariodante being a perfect Handel opera. There are other contenders that can claim to be Handel's best work - Giulio Cesare for example having a greater variety of moods, melodies and action. Coming just around the time that Handel was starting to switch over to oratorio writing but not quite jaded by the opera format (as can possibly be seen in Deidamia), Ariodante can certainly be said to demonstrate all of the composer's brilliance in the art of opera writing. For its perfection to be evident however it really needs the right kind of singers to do it justice, and you can't argue with the quality of the cast that have been brought together for this Aix production.

As Ariodante, you don't get much better than Sarah Connolly in this type of role. I wasn't actually sure the role best suited her voice in places during Act I, but I was totally convinced by her simply magnificent performance of 'Scherza infida' in Act II. In terms of performance and dramatic commitment, Connolly is at her best right now and hard to beat. Patricia Petibon takes on the challenging range and da capo ornamentation of the role of Ginerva, a testing role that she gets through it with verve, personality and strong technique. Her wild red hair is another advantage here in a Scottish opera, but she's also strong in terms of characterisation, her Ginerva not just a put-upon victim. There's no shortage of personality in the role of Polinesso, despite the strange firebrand preacher characterisation in this production. It needs a true contralto and Sonia Prina has everything that is required here, particularly impressive on the lower end of the tessitura and utterly convincing in the masculine role.

The other three leads were no less impressive than the main roles. Sandrine Piau in particular was just outstanding. Dalinda is an interesting character to work with - in the thrall of her passions for Polinesso, she becomes a betrayer to others and is ultimately manipulated and betrayed herself. Piau makes the most of this in her Act II aria 'Se tanto piace al cor', and in her Act III realisation of what she has done. Richard Jones is right to follow this right through to having permanent consequences, particularly when it's as powerfully drawn as it is here by Piau. Despite the opportunities afforded by Handel's writing, there's no vocal grandstanding anywhere here, just pure dramatic expression. Luca Tittoto gave a heartfelt performance as the King of Scotland, his 'Invida sorte avara' aria in particular just superb, and David Portillo's lyrical tenor voice gave Lurcanio a measure of sensitivity rather than simply hotheadedness.

Links: CultureboxFestival d’Aix-en-Provence