Exploiting its repertoire of Handel productions assembled over the last six years, ETO chose this year to give us a Handelfest. It was possible to see all five of Alcina, Ariodante, Flavio, Teseo and Tolomeo in London, Malvern, Exeter and Cambridge and that would have been a Fest indeed: over 14 hours of Handel’s evolution as an opera composer, from 1713 (Teseo) to 1735 (Alcina and Ariodante). At Snape Maltings I saw Ariodante in a production first staged by ETO’s general director James Conway in 2003. Even though it cannot be said to have solved all the problems of staging Handel opera, the production has worn well. It is taut, focused, clear in narrative drive and thoroughly practical to stage. The single setting – a manse in Scotland – has a rear wall depicting a stormy sea and two blank side walls depicting a house. The cast is reduced to six main characters, no chorus, virtually no props. The baroque orchestra, beautifully controlled by conductor Benjamin Bayl, played with verve and precision (the odd rasping horn notwithstanding). Coming in a shade under three hours, this Ariodante works well. My minor reservations come later: but this was ETO in splendid repertory company form. The largely full house enjoyed it greatly.
There is of course a problem staging this sort of semi seria opera, where each number has its own Affekt and the dramatic action moves at a pace that can only be described as stately. The problem is enhanced by the pared-down production that Conway gives the piece, in that the onstage characters have little or nothing to do while the principals sing (in turn) their da capo arias. There was a wonderful stage moment in Act Two, four of the characters all in the room together, each bursting with their own thoughts, that Verdi would have set to a thrilling quartet! But this is Handel, and the drama has to come through the solo voice. So quite a lot rested on the cast of young-ish principals assembled by ETO for the run, and by and large they did not disappoint.
I liked the Ariodante of Anne Marie Gibbons a lot. She looks like an Octavian in the making, sings with little vibrato, a pure register and an enviable technique in the coloratura passages that litter the role. Breath control was exemplary. The voice is on the light side – definitely mezzo rather than contralto – but her sound was fresh and attractive and she did not put a foot wrong. Her finest aria, given in this production as “Love undying”, failed to make its full effect as she sang most of it from the rear wall – and not even the generous Snape acoustic quite overcame that. But this was a fine all-round performance – and in total contrast to her comic turn as Milady in Fra Diavolo at Stanley Hall Opera this summer.
Opposite her, Rachel Nicholls was a feisty Ginevra, the desirable daughter about whom the entire plot turns. Her soprano sound is warm without being plumy, her sense of attack was good (particularly in her big Act One solo) and she had the stamina required for the part – particularly in the last act, when the director made her act out her grief lying on the stage floor or on her back. This was a confident assertion of the role. But the more interesting soprano voice, pallid in timbre compared with Nicholls, belonged to Katherine Manley as Dalinda, the girl so hopelessly in love with the villainous Polinesso that she agrees to impersonate poor Ginevra and show her up to Ariodante as a wanton (or whore, as Ginevra’s father later calls her). I found her sense of melodic line highly beguiling – my impression was that she was singing well within herself, and using a flat, neutral timbre to express Dalinda’s besotted character.
I thought I was going to like Jonathan Peter Kenny as Polinesso a lot. It is easily the best part in the opera, and his villainy came across the metaphorical footlights from the moment he first stepped onstage. His counter tenor sound is dark and the break in register quite pronounced at low pitch: but Kenny exploits this to great effect, making his allround assumption of the role memorable. However on the night he was undoubtedly suffering: the sound was congested, the words lacked impact and breath control was all over the place. An audible clearing of the throat in the last act confirmed that he was not on top vocal form. For those who hear him when he is on song, the experience will be great: Kenny has a magnetic presence and in his scenes with the docile Manley, he held the stage.
Nathan Vale has a pleasing tenor voice: if Kenny made me slightly anxious as I listened to him, Vale had the opposite effect. Rhythmically precise, he made as much of the part as it will carry and gave us some fine singing. Finally Andrew Slater, an ETO stalwart, proved dependable and ultimately rather moving as Ginevra’s father, Donald. His Act One aria was a bit approximate, but he sang his way into the role thereafter and began to produce a noble bass-baritone line.
So overall, some good singing performances. Add to that a great sense of empathy with the conductor, and tremendous rapport between pit and stage, and you surely have the makings of wonderful Handel opera? Well, on this occasion it just fell short at the edges. Perhaps the cast were worried about Kenny and helping to nurse him along, perhaps they were just slightly out of sorts on that particular evening, but the fabric of the piece felt slightly loose, the sense of ensemble just one degree under. What we were left with was great playing, some lovely singing and – now and again – Handel at his most glorious, the sense of intimate, Romantic opera just starting to emerge from the static carapace of opera seria. See it if you can – it’s a great piece. And even with my slight reservations, this Ariodante is a tribute to the professionalism and artistic vision of ETO and its general director Conway.