By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO — When Handel’s brilliant 1735 opera Ariodante opened at Lyric Opera of Chicago on March 2 for the first time in the company’s history, it was without mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in the title role. Flu and laryngitis had ravaged the ranks at the Lyric, to the persistent refrain of widespread coughing in the seats. La traviata’s Violetta (soprano Albina Shagimuratova) missed her second, third and fourth performances; its Alfredo (tenor Giorgio Berrugi) had to pull out of his fifth.
But the Lyric soldiered on. Coote returned in good health on March 5 to undertake the massive and formidable challenge of Ariodante, the young prince whose betrothal to the daughter of the kingdom is nearly foiled. Coote’s fierce second-act soliloquy “Scherza infida,” musically a Hamlet-like masterstroke, shows the shocked young lover Ariodante, who thinks he has been betrayed, in a desperately confused outpouring of grief, love and vengeance that lasts well beyond ten minutes. Whatever it might have cost Coote to summon the reserves of energy required for that amazing scene was not apparent. The intimacy was intense, the soaring effect pure theater. She brought the house down.
The title role was originally written for Giovanni Carestini, the reigning Italian castrato in London during Handel’s white-hot opera streak (before the composer turned to oratorio), and his music is principally a series of famously difficult da capo arias that moved along crisply under Harry Bicket’s baton. Coote gave a blisteringly beautiful portrayal of this young man of absolutes, at first euphoric in love, but by subsequent turns crestfallen, rashly judgmental, all but bleeding with raw pain – and later, when the facts were finally sorted, besotted with joy.
It is a credit to Coote’s total command that one’s impression was not of nearly impossible coloratura delivered with thrilling agility, but of a young man’s emotionally raw, existential journey through life’s disillusioning shoals. In fact, all three in the love triangle – which included soprano Brenda Rae, in her sparkling Lyric debut as Ginevra, the king’s daughter whom Ariodante adores, and countertenor Iestyn Davies, who threw himself wholly into the baddest of villains – were well past focusing on technical considerations. It wasn’t the notes these three projected, but rather the reckless and searing emotions that made this nearly 300-year-old story seem potent still.
The success is also owed to an unusual, updated time frame conceived by director Richard Jones and designed by ULTZ for Lyric among a consortium of commissioners that included Festival Aix-en-Provence, Dutch National Opera and Canadian Opera Company. Directed this time around by Benjamin Davis, the rolling world premiere took a very long time to roll into the Windy City (the Aix performance was in 2014) but perhaps that’s a boon: Its fresh plot twist certainly fits the urgent distaff mood of the nation at our moment in history.
Any modern woman might understandably demand of this story, “What about Ginevra, the king’s daughter, whose reputation was so thoroughly trashed by a lying scoundrel – a lie, by the way, that her boyfriend swallowed whole?” Handel gives us the full arc of Ariodante’s ardor, disillusionment, and redemption. And we are told that Ginevra, driven insane, recovers. But this dutiful daughter – who has a charmingly girlish scene at the outset reminiscent of Marguerite’s Jewel Song in Faust – is in the end all but forgotten as the resolution is basically sorted out by her strong-arming father (bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen) and the other men.
Jones’ update plucks the opera out of the royal culture of centuries gone by and drops it into small-village Scotland during the vaguely recent past. It’s a place, we surmise, in which power still passes from fathers to sons or sons-in-law, with daughters chaste on pain of becoming dead to their parents, and where the Bible remains a powerful cudgel. Interludes are given over to puppets who express the community’s simple sentiments about love’s rules, at first charming, then chilling. With the simple emotional purity of a graphic novel, which is not to say comic book extremes, the show sports other significant modern twists:
Iestyn Davies’ villain Polinesso is interpreted not as a licentious nobleman, but as a vicious sadist in preacher’s clothes who tries to force himself upon Ginevra, then settles for destroying her reputation. A countertenor’s rage can indeed be ominously scary, but Polinesso’s character is first relayed in a searing pantomime in which the surtitled sermonizer blames Woman! as the source of evil. The role of Ginevra’s maid Dalinda (gifted soprano and rivetting actress Heidi Stober) is also considerably amplified; she is duped into helping the wholly evil Polinesso, who dominates her in a humiliating sado-masochistic scene that reveals, among other things, his nasty tattoos.
The distraught and battered Dalinda remains touchingly present onstage thereafter, her emotional paralysis played out in silent vigilance; I could not keep my eyes off her. Finally, although love is still clearly a gamble in any age, the director gives Ginevra an intriguing card to play. In its modern approach to one of the great operas in the canon, this six-year-old production is aging nicely.
Handel’s Ariodante continues at Lyric Opera of Chicago with performances March 11, 14, and 17. Click here for information.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for The New York Times and a variety of national publications.