March 06, 2019

ARIODANTE Marries Brilliant Baroque Music with Bold Updated Staging

Sometimes opera takes you to completely unexpected, dramatically powerful, thought-provoking places -- if you’re open to new experiences. 

That’s certainly the case with the Lyric premiere of Handel’s Ariodante, on multiple levels. Some of its brilliant arias might be familiar from concerts or recordings, but the full Baroque masterpiece is terra incognita for most of us (even though it was wildly popular when Handel, the German expat living in London, was spinning out Italian operas). Still, there is inviting familiarity in the bouncing beat and virtuoso vocal writing in this new-to-Lyric opera. 

The original plot of Ariodante is full of Shakespearean twists, disguises, mistaken identities, wrenching misunderstandings, and eventual reconciliation (not unlike Much Ado About Nothing). Ginevra and Ariodante love each other and are about wed with the blessing of her father, the King of Scotland. Polinesso covets Ginevra and uses her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda (who loves Polinesso), to trick Ariodante into believing Ginevra is unfaithful and provoke his apparent suicide. Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio, meanwhile, loves and is shunned by Dalinda, and blames Ginevra for his sibling’s seeming demise. Eventually Ariodante turns up alive, Polinesso is vanquished, and the “right” couples are united. 

Richard Jones’s production moves the story from medieval times to an isolated, religiously fundamentalist Scottish island in the 1970s. Polinesso is a creepy grifter who penetrates this closed community in preacher’s clothes (possibly having done away with a mainland preacher legitimately summoned by the king), wreaking terrible havoc on several relationships and the fabric of the village itself through acts of sexual abuse and manipulation. In the end, Ginevra leaves rather than reconciling with the fiancé, father, and community who condemned her to death on false charges of infidelity. 

Puppets representing Ginevra and Ariodante pantomime scenes that reflect the community’s expectations and misperceptions of the characters in this production, replacing ballet sequences used to close each act in the original. 

Baroque opera “is radical theater,” says Anthony Freud. “Ariodante deals with abuse and complicity.” Lyric’s general director calls this production of Ariodante “a clear, immediate, powerful telling of the story that will defy preconceptions about Handel’s Baroque formality. Our production reflects many contemporary issues. Handel’s masterpiece may be over 280 years old, but is startling in its topicality and intensity.”

Jones and his creative team drew inspiration for this production of Ariodante from the dark indie film Breaking the Waves, and also the plays of Strindberg and Ibsen. Longtime operagoers may be reminded of aspects of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, in which an innocent young woman in Appalachia is seduced by an itinerant preacher. There are also traces of Peter Grimes in the community turning against one of its own. 

Lyric’s splendid cast inhabits the complex characters while singing the daunting score brilliantly. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote takes on the title role with soprano Brenda Rae (Lyric debut) as Ariodante’s betrothed, Ginevra. Soprano Heidi Stoberportrays the vulnerable Dalinda, manipulated by the evil Polinesso, played by countertenor Iestyn Davies. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen is the King of Scotland, tenor Eric Ferring portrays Lurcanio, and tenor Josh Lovell portrays Odoardo (the latter two are Ryan Opera Center artists). The puppeteers, all making Lyric debuts, are Kate ColebrookSam ClarkTommy Luther, and John Trindle

Acclaimed Baroque specialist Harry Bicket conducts, and Benjamin Davis (Lyric debut) is revival director. The production is designed by ULTZ (Lyric debut), with lighting by Mimi Jordan SherinMichael Black is chorus master. Lucy Burge is choreographer, Finn Caldwell is puppetry director and designer, and Nick Barnesis puppetry designer (the latter three are Lyric debuts). 

...vocally, visually, and dramatically arresting...daring reconception...Four stars – Chicago Tribune
The casting for this production could hardly have been better...3.5 stars.  – Chicago Sun-Times
...vibrant, urgent...emotionally probing...⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Bachtrack
Incisive, disquieting and sung with compelling muscularity and poignancy, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s updated and freshly viewed Ariodante is a Handel winner. – OperaChaser

Production photo: Cory Weaver