Ariodante – Caitlin Hulcup
Ginevra – Danielle de Niese
ll Re – Olivier Lallouette
Lurcanio – Topi Lehtipuu
Dalinda – Jaël Azzaretti
Polinesso – Vivica Genaux

Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

“Ariodante” came to the Barbican Centre’s “Great Performers” season in a great performance by Christophe Rousset and his group Les Talens Lyriques, following a run of staged performances, directed by Lukas Hemleb, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in a co-production with the Theater an der Wien.

This followed the Barbican’s enviable policy of cherry-picking the best of Handel from around the continent: four this season (following last October’s “Theodora” and continuing on 19 April with “Giulio Cesare” and on 18 May with “Amadigi di Gaula”) and due next season (“Flavio” on 17 April).

“Ariodante” was the product of a troubled time for Handel. In the mid-1730s a rival company challenged his almost-monopoly of the Haymarket Theatre that had lasted for two decades. So “Ariodante” was his first opera composed for Covent Garden. Extraordinarily, having lost the services of countertenor Senesino, Handel was lucky enough to have at his disposal an equally gifted (if similarly temperamental) replacement in Carestini, who took the title role.

Despite a cancellation – Angelika Kirchschlager had laryngitis and was replaced by Australian Caitlin Hulcup, and those artists replaced before the production had run in France (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo by Olivier Lallouette, and Sandrine Piau by Jaël Azzaretti) – Rousset masterminded a thrilling performance of the score. As befits its previous run-in on stage, the cast acted their roles with no scores (apart from the final chorus, presumably sung in the staged performances by a separate group), which aided the dramatic impact of what sounds, on a first reading, a tortuous tale.

However, over four hours, the tangled web of who loves who and who betrays who seems easily assimilated, and Handel’s acts break down into three easy steps. Act One brings Ariodante and Ginevra together, with the blessing of her father the King of Scotland. In Act Two Polinesso’s plot to trick Ariodante into believing that Ginevra is unfaithful (by getting her maid, Dalinda, to dress in her mistress’s clothes and ‘hang-out’ with Polinesso) allows the act to comprise four memorable laments: Ariodante’s ‘Scherza infida in grembo al drudo’ (underpinned by mournful bassoon tones), the King’s ‘Invida sorte avarda’ (when he first hears of Ariodante’s supposed death) and, later, after he finds out that his daughter has been seen with another and sentenced her to death, and then Ginevra ends the act with her heartfelt ‘Il mio crudel martoro’. The final act restores Ariodante to life after Dalinda reveals her unwitting part in Polinesso’s plot. Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio, kills Polinesso in the scoundrel’s attempt to defend her honour and at the end there are two couples to celebrate marriage: not only Ariodante and Ginevra, but also Lurcanio and Dalinda.

Consistently well sung, with Rousset (part-time at the harpsichord, and part standing and conducting, with a second harpsichord the basis of the continuo) adding flare and musical drama, various instruments adding their distinctive timbre – particularly the bright natural horn and swaggering trumpets.

I very much liked Caitlin Hulcup, brown-velvet frock-coated, as Ariodante: if you were unaware that she was actually a replacement, you would never have guessed, and I assume she may have had to take Kirchschlager’s place in Paris, so well did she act. Danielle de Niese’s Ginevra was a world away from her eye-fluttering sex-kitten Cleopatra in David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production (soon to be seen at the Metropolitan), bringing a sense of vulnability to her role, while Alaskan mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, power-suited though rather incongruously with bling stiletto, was a suitably machiavellian Polinesso. Topi Lehtipuu – a Finnish Ian Bostridge – was a suitably long-haired, fiery-tempered Lurcanio, whose dress-suit would definitely have needed to be sent to the cleaners as he would take the jacket off and throw it down in anger, then cavort on the Barbican stage as he made it up to sweet Jaël Azzaretti’s Dalinda.

One can only urge the Barbican to invite Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques back again.

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