Cecilia Bartoli, the one and only, takes the role of Ariodante for the first time at 50 years old, and, naturally, Bartolifies it, as she does with everything else. The take she and director Christophe Loy have on Ariodante is interesting: the opera becomes an exploration of gender identity, a reflection on how much our perception and interpretation of the world rely on people belonging to a binary, immutable gender.
Baroque opera provides the perfect background for such a reflection. The stars of XVIII century opera were castrated men, with the body of a man and a voice in the female range. In modern times, these roles have been sung by women, mostly, so we’ve had a series of women, dressed in “trousers roles”, playing the part of the male hero. In the last 30 years or so we’ve had countertenors (non-castrated men singing in the female range) sharing these characters with women. So, since the beginning baroque opera has been a place where gender was fluid, less set in stone than in other expressions of society.
Cecilia Bartoli enters the stage in full armor, as the medieval warrior Ariodante, returning from the Crusades. He/she arrives at the court of the King of Scotland, where his beloved, princess Ginevra, is waiting for him. At the court, most people are in modern clothes, on an almost empty stage. In this production Ariodante is a bit of a country bumpkin, not really accustomed to the court; he is clearly out of his depth, and his awkwardness is in contrast with Polinesso’s sophistication and perfect ease at the King of Scotland’s court. The dances were not cut (thank you!) and they were performed in XVIII century clothes, with men in drag as female dancers. Polinesso took part in the dancing with elegance, in a very fancy baroque costume, while Ariodante was kind of jumping around and making a bit a fool of himself.
Towards the end of the first act Ariodante sings maybe the hardest aria that Handel has written: Con l’ali di costanza. The coloratura is fast and furious, and the director had the idea to have Ariodante drunk, during this aria. Bartoli was incredible. She took the original version, no cuts, at very fast tempo, drinking, stumbling, faking a hiccup to match the staccato notes, and all this without missing a beat, it was a remarkable performance.
The second act is where the deception unfolds: Polinesso manages to make Ariodante believe that Ginevra is unfaithful, and we get the most beautiful aria of the opera: Scherza infida, where he laments her infidelity and plans his own suicide. Bartoli gave us an extremely emotional performance (yes, I cried), I think it might be the best Scherza infida I’ve ever heard, or at least at par with Connolly’s. Bartoli was amazing at communicating deep emotions, and I have to say her passaggio towards the chest voice sounded better than ever, extremely smooth, her voice completely uniform over the range. During this aria, Polinesso makes an appearance, coming out of the room where he closed himself with (Dalinda dressed as) Ginevra, and drops Ginevra’s dress on the floor, as a sign of victory and defiance. Ariodante at the end of the aria picks it up and wears it; it seems almost a gesture of endearment – as if he wanted to feel close to Ginevra, to smell her perfume – but soon it becomes clear that he feels very comfortable in it.
When Ariodante comes back after surviving his suicide attempt, and everybody believes he’s dead, they are all very surprised to see him of course, and the surprise for the dress is mixed in with the surprise of seeing him alive in the first place. Towards the middle of the third act Ariodante loses the beard as well, and is completely transformed in a woman. Bartoli’s acting, however, doesn’t change: she is still moving and prowling around as a man. At the end, after the duet with Ginevra, there is another series of dances, with the chorus: the dances are once again in baroque costumes, while the chorus represents a Sixties cocktail party, elegant clothes, posh people meeting and greeting and mingling. As the dancing and choral singing progresses, the dancers and chorus members start “dying” on stage, moving as zombies, while Ariodante and Ginevra take the way out, together, stopping on the door to look back as if to say “to hell with all of you”, and running away, two women in love.
I loved it. I loved the whole concept, its realization, and, most of all, the fact that it was realized in the context of a musical production shining with excellence. The music was never sacrificed for the sake of conveying the idea. It would have been so easy to do this wrong, and they did it right, never vulgar, never corny. Of course there were a few slapstick moments, of course LaBartoli was overacting at times, but, overall, the whole concept of the production was firmly set into Handel’s music, and it fit perfectly.
Bartoli was, as I have already said, a great Ariodante. If I have to be picky, it is true that her overacting sometimes detracts from intonation, resulting in pitches on the sharp side. I hear that re-listening to pirate recordings, more than noticing it in the theatre. Her coloratura is still absolutely first class, and her trills are unsurpassed.
Christophe Dumaux, who was singing Polinesso, confirms himself as the most interesting countertenor of his generation. His voice is very dark and smooth, with a strong masculine character (despite the countertenor range), his coloratura is almost as good as Bartoli’s, and his interpretation is extremely believable. All his arias were breath-taking, he was absolutely perfect. His Polinesso is a complete psychopath, a master of manipulation, who fakes love for Dalinda in order to get her to do what he wants, but has trouble hiding his violent, criminal side. I have said of him that when he’s on stage, it’s hard to look at anybody else. I have also said the same thing about Bartoli, so I was very curious of how they would play together on stage, would they try to upstage each other? Would they be rolling on the floor ripping off each other’s hair, like true prima donnas? It was marvelous. Rather than competing for attention, they enhanced each other’s charisma, they played together, a real team. It was truly wonderful to watch how they put their gigantic egos at Handel’s service.
One of the best surprises of the evening was Kathryn Lewek, a young American coloratura soprano singing Ginevra. Her top register is brilliant, it shines of a thousand overtones, and it comes extremely easy to her (she’s making a career as the Queen of the Night). From up there, the voice comes down with a wonderfully seamless passaggio, and it finds rich, deep burnished colors, in a surprisingly powerful middle register. (If this woman should lose her top notes, she can absolutely recycle herself as a mezzo.) Her acting was remarkable, her commitment to the character complete and unwavering. During the aria Il mio crudel martoro, which is a beautiful, never-ending lamentation aria like only Handel can write, you could hear a pin drop in the theatre, people were holding their breath. I definitely want to hear more of her.
Dalinda was Sandrine Piau, a solid baroque singer, with a beautiful shiny soprano voice. Her interpretation was very convincing, and she delivered her many arias with skill. In particular, her Neghittosi, taken at incredible speed, was very effective.
Lurcanio was tenor Norman Reinhardt, who I had already heard as Pollione to Bartoli’s Norma in Paris. I thought he was a bit too light as Pollione, and now I thought he was a bit too heavy as Lurcanio. Overall, I think Handel suits him better than Bellini. His performance was very enjoyable, he also has great stage presence and acts convincingly.
Nathan Berg, as the King of Scotland, is the only one who left me a bit disappointed. His voice is, in my opinion, too heavy for Handel, or rather, it’s his delivery which is too heavy, he tends to scream. Especially towards the end, he was really shouting.
The orchestra was Les Musiciens du Prince, the baroque ensemble founded by Bartoli herself, and conducted by Gianluca Capuano. I had already heard them in Rossini, and here I liked them better. Capuano was very careful in his reading of the score: many details were highlighted, the dynamics were always well thought and carefully executed, the tempi were a bit extreme (very fast and very slow), but with a cast of singers like these, he could afford it. I loved the use of the castanets (or something which sounded very similar) during the dances. It gave a modern, interesting twist to the baroque dances.
This has been one of the great opera experiences of this year. I will be thinking about this for a long time. And I’m seeing it again in August!