How can a baroque opera from 1734 be squared with 21st Century sensibilities? That was the challenge for director Christof Loy in staging Handel’s Ariodante.
Fortunately, he had available the formidable resources of the Salzburg Festival and the estimable mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who not only remains one of the world’s great singers but also now serves as artistic director of Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival in the spring.
Baroque opera can be static and dull, unless the action is enlivened by the director, cast, and in this production, by the dancers. Bartoli is a scholar as well as an artist, and this production bore the marks of her scholarship, particularly inasmuch as very little was cut, leaving a performance of some 4 and one-half hours.
The staging and costumes had elements of both the 18th and 21st centuries, but Loy made it all work seamlessly. There was almost continuous action, despite a libretto that has almost none. The performance was in Salzburg’s Haus fűr Mozart, an intimate setting that allowed the skillful staging to shine through with a finesse that might have been lost in the cavernous confines of, for example, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
Of particular distinction was the choreography of Andreas Heise, which ably complemented the authentic period costumes of costumer Ursula Renzenbrink. The action was vigorous and nonstop. Unlike much baroque opera, this Ariodante was visually stunning.
The title role, originally written for a castrato, was instead sung by Bartoli. It was her first “trouser role,” where a female singer performs the role of a male character. In this production, Bartoli’s Ariodante evolved from a fully male character through sort of a male/female composite into a fully female character.
It sounds like a conceit, and it was, but somehow Bartoli made it convincing. Her singing of Ariodante’s florid coloratura was, as expected, spectacular. But she acted the part, and her example clearly animated her colleagues on the stage.
This cast included two sopranos, Kathryn Lewek and Sandrine Piau, as Ginevra and her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda respectively. Both sang radiantly and within the Handelian style of baroque opera.
A singer new to me is Christophe Dumaux, a French countertenor, who sang Polinesso with ringing power and an especially virile lower register. Bass Nathan Berg was suitably regal as the King. The star tenor Rolando Villazón did not sing with ease or his customary accuracy or Handelian style, but he sang with ardent romanticism, as a star tenor should.
The performance I attended was conducted by Gianluca Capuano. In the pit was Les Musiciens du Prince de Monaco, a period ensemble founded by Bartoli under the patronage of Prince Albert II of Monaco. It is a well-schooled ensemble that handled the challenges of Handel’s instrumental writing flawlessly. It was a long evening, but one to be treasured.