I bought this ticket about a year ago, when Joyce DiDonato announced her European Ariodante tour. I have never heard JDD in Handel, and I was really looking forward to it. Alas, she cancelled, a few months ago, due to a scheduled surgery, and I decided to go anyway because:
- Ariodante!!! and
- the replacement was Alice Coote, a singer I have never heard live but always admired on record.
It was a concert performance, which became kind of semi-staged; I confirm my opinion that these are the opera performances I like best. I’m just sick and tired of all the shenanigans of staging these days; a semi-staged performance gives some insight on the acting abilities of the singers, it can draw the audience into the plot, without the whole thing turning into Star Trek in the middle of the opera, or something.
The orchestra was The English Concert, conducted by Harry Bickett, they were exceptionally good. The precision and the sense of ensemble were amazing. They managed to express a remarkable range of colors and different feelings: as my tweep Marina said, at times the orchestra told the story better than the singers. All this was done without ever overpowering the singers themselves, but always working with them. There was a moment, in Con l’ali di costanza, where Coote really needed to catch her breath for a tad longer than the fast pace allowed. They all breathed together, took a tiny little pause between measures, and didn’t miss a step. And this with the singer in front of the orchestra, so not watching the conductor, who was playing the harpsicord anyway. Yes, I realize that this had been rehearsed, but MAN!!
In particular I noticed the cellos and double-bass (I was sitting in row 2, on the right side, so they were kind of hard to miss). Recently I have been hearing some baroque orchestras where the string bass section really ends up banging on their instruments, treating them like percussions. While this proves to be very effective, and, as far as I can tell, not out of style, I have to say that some orchestras overdo it (Petrou, I’m looking at you). Here they were banging away, but with an elegance, a sense of the musical phrase, and a musical intelligence which really amazed me. Bravi!
Alice Coote was Ariodante. As I was saying, I was hearing her live for the first time, and I have mixed feelings. She is obviously a very experienced Handel singer: she knows the ins and outs of it, and shows it with confidence. She also showed some limitations. Her coloratura is still sparkling, but the fast pace that the conductor chose did prove to be a challenge for her, especially in Con l’ali di costanza, which has to be the hardest aria Handel wrote, and was somewhat cut (same cuts taken by JDD in her Carnegie Hall performance). The worst thing about her singing was her breathing. She ran out of breath in places, and (as a result, I think) her voice sounded very “airy”, a bit “hollow”, as if it wasn’t well supported. She has a wonderful color, when the voice comes out round and full, but it not always did. To be honest, I have also heard that she is recovering from chicken pox, so maybe she wasn’t at her best. Having said all this, her Scherza, infida, was extremely good, and so was Cieca notte, moving and enthralling.
Ginevra was Christiane Karg. Her soprano is shiny and bright, and her coloratura is secure and convincing, albeit a bit stylized. The color of her voice is the main complaint I have: her voice shines but it has no bronze in it, which isn’t in itself a defect (Mariella Devia’s voice had no bronze in it either, but it is/was extremely beautiful), but, as such, can come out cold and aloof. The fact that she was often reading from the score also added to this sense of detachment. She did do a good job in the lament arias, so it’s not like she cannot convey emotion. I don’t know. I have to hear her again.
My homie Sonia Prina was Polinesso! I’ll say it again: I adore this woman. She has a very strange technique in her coloratura, which needs some getting used to, and the voice sometimes takes a harsh color. So, lots of haters out there, but we on Team Prina could not care less. I really like her interpretation of Polinesso. This is a very one-dimensional character, a cartoon villain, the key element in a very, VERY silly plot. Prina does not try to make him more human, she doesn’t try to empathize. She portrays him exactly as written: an evil, ridiculously scheming cartoon villain. She finds, and highlights, some details that are, in fact, in the music, but not, strictly speaking, in the libretto, and make him even more hideous. I am talking of his seduction approach. Her Polinesso is a master “Pick-up artist” (Google and cringe): he uses all the “techniques” of bullies who try to trick women into accepting their advances. Her Polinesso laughs and dismisses Ginevra’s strong and heartfelt refusal (“You are more disgusting to me than the Furies themselves”), as if it was a child’s tantrum. When Dalinda confesses her love for him, he uses sensuality and violence to win her loyalty and use her for his evil plan. Prina’s Polinesso is the perfect embodiment of this rapey and de-humanizing attitude, and her commitment to this interpretation is complete.
Dalinda was the young Mary Bevan, a wonderful surprise! Her voice was probably the most beautiful of the whole evening: the color is deep, she has a wide range of dynamics and very good phrasing. And the coloratura rocks! Her Neghittosi was superb.
Ginervra’s father, the king of Scotland, was Matthew Brook. He has a nice, agile bass-baritone voice, with the right style. He also looks the part. He was one of the singers who, together Prina, tried to act more than the rest, with mixed results. Overall I enjoyed his efforts: he portrayed a very distressed father at the news of Ariodante’s suicide caused by the sluttiness of his daughter (it was all a misunderstanding caused by Polinesso, of course). His desperation was palpable in his acting, without disrupting the singing.
Tenor David Portillo was singing Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother. His voice is strong and agile, and it projects to hell and back. I think he could be a reasonable Rossini tenor, I would like to hear him in some Barbiere or other. He was wearing a grey-blue suit and light brown shoes. Doesn’t he have a girlfriend, a gay friend, somebody who can help him with such fashion blunders? It was hideous. But I did enjoy his performance, he really has a powerful instrument and the pale character of Lurcanio came through.
I want to mention Bradley Smith in the very small role of Odoardo: he only had a few recitativo phrases, but he really put in an effort and made the most of it.
So, all in all, I am very happy to have seen this Ariodante. However, Sarah Connolly in this role still has a firm grip on my heart.