Ariodante in Amsterdam

28 Jan

A visit to Amsterdam coincided with the Netherlands National Opera performing Handel’s Ariodante.  With Sarah Connolly, Sandrine Piau and Sonia Prina in the cast and a production by Richard Jones (originating in Aix in 2014), this was too good to miss.  I went to the performance on 25th January.

Ariodante is one of those great masterpieces that repays interpretation and which is open to any number of approaches.  Predictably, Richard Jones took the nastiest one possible and made you realise what a cruel work this is.  He sets it in Scottish fishing community in the 1970s.  Polinesso is the local pastor – we see him conducting a service during the overture while Ariodante and Lurcanio are the local fishermen.  It may not quite fit with the surtitles (which refer to Polinesso as the “Duke” and Ariodante as Scotland’s saviour, but the issues are the same whether it’s courtly love or the local pastor leching after the village elder’s daughter.

It’s set on a single set – a three-roomed cottage – which enables different things to happen during arias and the surround plot to be developed.  So Polinesso and Dalinda are plotting during Lurcanio’s first Act aria and you see the villagers praying over Ginevra as Ariodante returns in Act III.  For the dances, the chorus bring in puppets of Ariodante and Ginevra and promise babies and glory for them.  At the end of the second Act, Ginevra is shown as expelled from the community and becoming a prostitute in the city.  In the third, the Act I show is repeated but Ariodante is so caught up in it that he doesn’t notice Ginevra leaving of her own accord.  There is, of course, no joyous aria for Ginevra and nothing to suggest that the couple do, in fact, live happily and the depths in the arias suggest that a happy ending is unlikely.  Dalinda and Lurcanio’s reconciliation is similarly ambivalent.  It’s all acted marvellously and Jones’s trade mark, highly choreographed works ideally.  This is a thoughtful, really intelligent performance that involves you with the characters and has you sharing the emotion.

The cast was pretty good.  Sarah Connolly has deepened her interpretation of the title role since her ENO performances a decade ago.  Scherza infida was pretty much up there with Ann Murray’s unforgettable performance.  She captured the pain and the anger, acted the man engagingly, with the joy and the pain beautifully done.  She coped with some pretty brisk tempi for All’ aria di costanza and Dopo notte with fluent, impressive coloratura.

She was matched, if not exceeded, by Annett Fritsch as Ginevra.  This was some of the most outstandingly accurate, moving Handel singing that I’ve heard.  She brought a depth of despair and integrity to her Act III arias that matched Connolly’s and made Ginevra into an entirely sympathetic, believable character.  She has a gorgeous, limpid soprano that sounded ideal for this sort of music.  Both charted a range of emotions through each area so that the eventual outcome seemed entirely right.

As Polinesso, Sonia Prina caught the balance between pantomime villain and unpleasant, creepy pastor really well.  The slight harshness of her voice didn’t seem out of place here and she sang her three arias really well.  Sandrine Piau caught the daffiness of Dalinda, but also the real love and conflicting emotions of the role.  There was some really dazzlingly good Handel singing here, reminding you that this role is a cousin of Morgana in Alcina and needs similar agility and skill.

Luca Titotto as the King sang his arias cleanly, movingly and intelligently.  Only Andrew Tortise, as Lurcanio, seemed stretched beyond his limits: coloratura sounded effortful, the voice a tad small for the house.  He acted the role well.

Andrea Marcon conducted Concerto Koln.  Tempi tended to vary from the pretty brisk to the really quite slow and these contributed to a very long evening: four and quarter hours in total.  The band played with vigour and commitment.  The only serious criticism I have is one of balance which, I suspect, may be due to the acoustic of the opera house here.  The pit was raised and, while this helped you hear the orchestral textures it also tended to drown the singers.  Marcon’s continuo, particularly, seemed intrusively loud and far closer to me (in the eleventh row of the stalls) than it actually was.

The opera house struck me as a welcoming, perhaps rather large building – it seats 1600 people and is pretty wide.  I wonder what the acoustics are like for Wagner.  What was particularly impressive was the audience – informally dressed and containing a remarkably high number of people in the 16 – 22 age group that you hardly ever see in London.  They stayed to the end and appeared enthusiastic.  Aside from an outstanding performance of the opera, that committed, diverse, youthful and unstuffy audience was an additional bonus to a gem of an evening.  It’s a shame Jones’s production doesn’t look as though it’s coming here any time soon.

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