Handel's Ariodante is sabotaged by weak vocals and even weaker conducting

By Truman C. Wang
Published: 6/27/2008
Photo credit: Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera

CAST: Susan Graham (Ariodante), Ruth Ann Swenson (Ginevra), Veronica Cangemi (Dalinda), Sonia Prina (Polinesso), Eric Owens (King), Richard Croft (Lurcanio), Andrew Bidlack (Odoardo), Anders Froehlich (Squire).  Patrick Summers, conductor. John Copley, director. John Conklin, set designer.  MichaelStennett, costume designer. Kenneth von Heidecke, choreographer.  Ian Robertson, chorus master.  San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Choru

In this age of hip hop and reality television, opera may seem a hopelessly outdated, if not outright irrelevant, art form.  Certainly, works by Puccini, Mascagni and the other shock-jock Italian ‘verismo’ school of composers may still register some impact on the modern audience, but what of Handel’s operas, populated with kings, queens, magic sorceresses in static, convoluted plots resembling a David Lynch film (“Lost Highway”, “Mulholland Dr”)? 

                                        Swenson as Ginevra - Ariodante, Act 1

                                        Swenson as Ginevra - Ariodante, Act 1

According to the San Francisco Opera, the answer is to mount a handsome production, populate it with the finest singers, and let Handel’s music do its magic.   It all looks great on paper; in practice, however, it has left something to be desired.

The complicated plot of Ariodante may perhaps be clarified as follows:

(double arrow =  requited love,  single arrow= unrequited love,  X = archenemies)

Ginevra is betrothed to Ariodante. Polinesso, a jealous rival of Ariodante, uses Ginevra's maid Dalinda to trick Ariodante into believing that Ginevra is being unfaithful.  Ginevra's father, the King of Scotland, hears about the rumor and disowns her. Eventually, truth is revealed by the dying Polinesso, mortally wounded in a duel with Ariodante's brother Lurcanio.  The King pardons Ginevra and offers his crown to Ariodante.  General rejoicing.

John Conklin’s classically-inspired sets consist of several outsized columns atopped with golden Corinthian friezes.  They close behind the singers during the recitatives and open up to reveal a new scene in the next number.  I suspect they also aid in projecting sound into the auditorium as acoustic panels.

Act1 ariodante.jpg

The singers, looking ravishing in Michael Stennett’s sumptuous period costumes, were of variable qualities.  Eric Owens’ bottom-heavy bass-baritone sounded to ponderous to convey the King’s nobility.  Sonia Prina as the villain Polinesso (a male role written for a female contralto) was less than imposing both physically and vocally – with hollowed low notes and a peculiar technique that produces fast runs and roulades in a burst of hiccups, ruining the intended melodramatic effects.  Ruth Ann Swenson, a superlative Gilda (“Rigoletto”) and Lucia in the 1990’s, has grown darkened of voice that’s unfortunately laden with heavy vibratos in a part that calls for a younger, girlish voice (such as the first Ginevra of Anna Maria Strada in 1735). 

On the upside, Veronica Cangemi’s attractive young soprano and spirited singing breathed life into the character of Dalinda.  Tenor Richard Croft sang with ardor as the lovelorn Lurcanio, rising to dramatic heights in his Act 2 aria “Tu vivi e punito”.  Best of all was mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, giving a towering portrayal of Ariodante as both a hero and a lover.  Ariodante’s two celebrated arias – “Scherza infida” and “Dopo notte” – were handled with loving attention to the seamless bravura of the vocal line as well as the inner meaning of the music, despite being sabotaged by Patrick Summers’ tempo choice.

                                                             Susan Graham as Ariodante

                                                             Susan Graham as Ariodante

Which brings us to the weakest link of the performance – the conducting.  The magic and drama of Handel’s music reside mainly with the singers, who dictate the speed or tempo of the aria based on the words and their emotional content.  Alan Curtis, conducting an all-around exceptional Ariodante in Spoleto, Italy last year, carefully and rightfully differentiated the tempi among the arias and also within each individual aria. (taking his cues from the Baroque da capo aria’s binary A-B-A’ form).  If we are to use Ariodante’s “Dopo notte”, as an example –

       [Section A]
       Dopo notte, atra e funesta            /    After the night, dark and funereal,
       splende in Ciel più vago il sole   /    the sun shines brighter in the heavens
       e di gioia empie la terra               /    and fills the earth with joy

       [Section B]
       Mentre in orrida empesta             /    Although my little boat was
       il mio legno è quasi assorto          /    almost swamped in a terrible storm
       giunge in port e ‘l lido afferra     /     it reaches port, and grab onto the shore

       [Section A’]
       Dopo notte... etc.                          /     After the night...

Handel’s marking of Allegro (fast) in the score clearly denotes the festive mood of the aria.  Ariodante is rejoiced and relieved upon hearing the news of Ginevra’s innocence.  However, in section ‘B’, he pauses to reflect on the nightmare that had transpired before the arrival of the good news.  A shift to a slower tempo in the Spoleto performance added to the unspeakable terror of Ariodante’s nightmarish flashback.  In the San Francisco performance, however, Patrick Summers opted for an even faster tempo, Presto, in all sections, thereby ruining this ingenious bit of dramatic effect.  In other arias, Summers went for the extremes – either really fast (“Con l’ali di costanza”) or really slow (“Scerza infida”) with little flexibility or differentiation in the A-B-A’ sections.  It was not only inelegant but also unidiomatic.  The San Francisco Opera Orchestra players were not to blame, for their playing was eloquent and faultless, particularly the excellent woodwinds. 

John Copley basically let his team of Handelians roam freely without too much directorial interference, although I have noticed an annoying habit of having each singer exeunt after his/her aria and the ensuing applause at an empty stage – something that would have mystified Mr. Handel himself.  Would he have hired Italy’s most celebrated castrato, only to make him disappear promptly after his big showpiece?  I think not.

The opera’s static plot was briefly enlivened by a team of dancers in Act 3, who clearly reveled in the dance rhythms in Handel’s music to Kenneth von Heidecke’s choreography.

San Francisco Opera’s Ariodante is a feast for the eyes, but not so much for the ears -- with the single exception of Susan Graham.  A live recording of this performance will be broadcast on Classical 102.1 KDFC in San Francisco on Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 8pm.