Handel’s Ariodante – Royal Academy of Music

Ariodante – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Antonio Salvi after an episode in Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ariodante – Angharad Rowlands
Ginevra – Clara Orif
Dalinda – Erin O’Rourke
Polinesso – Rebecca Hart
Lurcanio – Henry Ross
King of Scotland – Charles Cunliffe
Odoardo – Samuel Stopford

Royal Academy Sinfonia
David Bates

Olivia Fuchs – Director
Yannis Thavoris – Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 21 November, 2023
Venue: Royal Academy of Music, London

At the outset of Olivia Fuchs’s production of Handel’s Ariodante (1735) for the Royal Academy of Music, members of the unnamed King of Scotland’s court set down on a whiteboard the ‘Rules’ which govern their society, and that are implied or invoked in the original text of the subsequent drama, adapted from an episode in the Renaissance epic Orlando furioso about adventuring knights harking back (with some irony and comedy it should be said) to the supposed age of chivalry in the early Middle Ages. Such a code – the divine right of kings; only a man can defend a woman’s honour; gender is binary; the value of a woman is her purity and so on – ironically deconstructs in simplistic, crudely ‘woke’ terms the assumptions of such a society and it’s not necessarily wrong to single them out for sending up or to critique. But it’s a caricature of a complicated set of social and political conventions of a former age which, in any case, the opera’s original libretto and Handel’s personable and sensitive music question and transcend in their ultimate commendation of Ariodante and Ginevra’s love, after Polinesso’s villainous ploy is discovered. 

To that extent it sheds rather little new light on the opera which has been presented before with the King’s court as one of stultifying, dehumanising conventions, for example in a previous production at the RAM itself, jointly with the London Handel Festival in 2014 by Paul Curran and conducted by Jane Glover. Insofar as Fuchs’s interpretation seeks to reappraise radically those conventions – rather than simply question them or let them recede into the background by the end – it perhaps misses a trick in not drawing more a connection with the fact that what effectively brings about the destabilising and explicit overturning of those Rules and the Court’s adherence to them is not any dispassionate, rational inquiry, but Polinesso’s pre-meditated and wicked plot. Out of jealous rage, he has Ginevra’s lady in waiting Dalinda dress up as her mistress and then goes into her chamber at night while Ariodante is watching, making the latter think that Ginevra is unfaithful. Subsequently it is Polinesso who, alone, comes to accept the challenge of her father, the King, and attempt to defend her honour in a duel with Ariodante’s irate brother, Lurcanio, hoping that he will win Ginevra as his prize. 

What Handel’s opera carefully leaves unanswered or unresolved at the end – i.e. what lessons this society has learnt, and which rules will obtain after the happy denouement of Ginevra’s vindication and Ariodante’s reappearance – in this production is inconsistently and uncomfortably ignored. If it wants to insist so explicitly and righteously on the bankruptcy of those apparent ‘Rules’ in favour of some other vision of society then, following the chain of cause and effect logically and consciously, it somewhat begs the question as to who or what will police people’s intentions and actions following the abrogation of those Rules, given that it was only the willingness to pursue a good old-fashioned trial that Polinesso’s evil was found out.

The concept of the Rules aside, the production more subtly suggests the restrictions of that social code by conceiving of the court as a prison-like space in black and white tones (as also its denizens), out of which it is difficult to escape. Ginevra herself is doubly imprisoned symbolically within the patriarchal system thrust upon her, as she is frequently seen within a metal frame on the stage, setting her dramatic persona as presented within an ironic or distancing device. At the end she, and all the other characters, free themselves from their outer dress and conformity to those Rules, and become their true, non-binary selves (as though retreating into such an array of arbitrary and contingent identities doesn’t render them as an atomised community of isolated individuals with their mutually exclusive differences). 

A generally bold performance from the cast and the RA Sinfonia under David Bates’s lively direction somewhat lurched between exemplifying the production’s confrontation with assumed values, and expressing the deeper emotional truths of Handel’s score where the composer charts a more nuanced, complicated trajectory towards the opera’s resolution – even here where significant chunks of the second and third Acts are cut (as well as the dances) eliminating much of the subplot between Dalinda and Polinesso. 

Angharad Rowlands is a controlled, quietly eloquent Ariodante, not going for histrionics in the soul-searching ‘Scherza infida’ or in the triumphant ‘Dopo notte’, but retaining dignity and order. Clara Orif rather steals the show for her charged rendition of Ginevra, not least in the aria of her deepest grief which turns into a potent emotional drama to rival ‘Scherza infida’ as a musical climax; she certainly demonstrates a talent for Baroque theatricality that is one to watch. Erin O’Rourke is a voluble Dalinda, no mere shadow of her mistress, even if some notes of her coloratura are faint and not equally glittering. Rebecca Hart cultivates a sly, insidious Polinesso rather than a jaggedly evil character. Henry Ross and Charles Cunliffe turn in enthusiastic performances as Lurcanio and the King respectively, perhaps even over-projecting within a modestly sized theatre and over a small instrumental ensemble; if Cunliffe is the more measured in articulation, Ross’s tone spreads untidily on some notes. But overall the cast respond avidly to a production that doesn’t take a routine approach to what is now a part of the operatic canon.

Further performances to 24 November

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