Worthy Handel singing buried by scabrous excess in Lyric Opera’s “Ariodante”

Sun Mar 03, 2019 at 4:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Iestyn Davies as Polinesso in Handel’s “Ariodante” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Another Lyric Opera production, another cancellation by a lead singer.

Hours before Saturday night’s opening performance of Handel’s Ariodante, Alice Coote bowed out of the title role, suffering from flu and a high fever. This follows Albina Shagimuratova’s decamping from the company’s concurrent run of La Traviata after a single performance due to acute laryngitis. 

Emily Birsan has been filling in with distinction as Violetta, and cover Julie Miller delivered an admirable performance taking over the role of Ariodante Saturday night.

Coote’s non-presence was, in fact, the least of the problems with Lyric Opera’s season-closing, local premiere of Ariodante, an ensemble work in which all the principals get their turns in the spotlight. Yet despite some moments of fine singing, the musical values were upstaged—yet again—by crass directorial excess that only served to drag both the performance and Handel’s glorious music deep into the muck. When you see a disingenuous trigger warning on Lyric’s website (“Please be advised that Ariodante has adult themes”) you know that trouble lies ahead.

Premiered to great success in 1735, Ariodante was written at the height of Handel’s operatic  powers. The plot concerns the villainous duke Polinesso who is attracted to the Scottish princess Ginevra, herself in love with Ariodante. After being rejected and ridiculed by Ginevra, Polinesso plots his revenge and enlists as his accomplice Dalinda, Ginevra’s lady in waiting—who, incomprehensibly, is in love with Polinesso herself. He convinces Dalinda to disguise herself as Ginevra and let him into her chambers, thus ruining Ginevra’s reputation and her impending marriage to Ariodante, as well as allowing Polinesso to take advantage of Dalinda’s affection by seducing her.

In the resulting scandal, Ginevra is disowned by her father the king, and the community for her seemingly wanton ways; she goes insane and Ariodante drowns himself in despair (but not really). Ultimately after further implausible machinations, the villainous Polinesso is killed by Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio, the mentally deranged Ginevra regains her senses, and the two happy couples (Ariodante and Ginevra, Dalinda and Lurcanio) are united, as the king bids everyone to return to the castle for a celebratory feast of wine, dancing and da capo choruses.

As is often the case in Handel’s stage works, the awkward and melodramatic scenario is mere scaffolding for a succession of richly varied arias offering both vocal brilliance and remarkable expressive depths. There are also several ballet episodes, which are here closely integrated with the stage action.

Handel’s operas often need some sensible staging assistance, and Ariodante more than most. Unfortunately, Lyric Opera has enlisted the preternaturally postmodern Richard Jones as director. Instead of dealing respectfully with the score and smoothing over its narrative lapses, Jones has wholly refashioned the opera into a contemporary morality fable with the opera’s women as victims of men’s violence in a patriarchal, male-dominated Christian community. 

The villain Polinesso is here a hypocritical minister. The evening begins with a silent pantomime of Jones’ creation, which has zero connection to the actual libretto. Polinesso leads the assembled  Calvinist community in a prayer in which he cites Biblical verses that disdain women, as a justification, apparently, for the excesses that follow. Later, the parishioners brandish their bibles as weapons and thrust them at the cowering Ginevra.

This is truly opera direction of dubious artistic integrity—if the actual score doesn’t fit a director’s version of what he would like it to be, just twist the narrative to your own personal ends and make stuff up. The sudden reversal of Ginevra’s mental health and Handel’s abrupt happy coda may be pat, but Jones’ revised ending in which Ginevra packs a suitcase and leaves the Scottish community—thumbing a ride on the stage curtain—is even sillier and more simplistic than the original. 

Worse than the trendy PC moral preening is the scabrous sexual excess that this staging revels in, which is entirely out of place. Jones’ shtick is to find one element in an opera that fits his dour, bleak perspective and then exaggerate that bit to elephantine proportions that alter and disfigure the character of the entire work.

As if Polinesso is not loathsome enough in the original opera, Jones makes him into a dangerous and violent sexual predator. We get Iestyn Davies as a Polinesso who spreads his legs while sitting on a bed as Dalinda stands before him, clearly expecting her to service him sexually. During one of Lurcanio’s arias, Polinesso violently rapes and beats Dalinda bloody in a pornographic pantomime, as the two assume a variety of frozen sexual positions. Polinesso draws etchings of naked, well-endowed men and posts them on Ginevra’s walls to falsely demonstrate Ginevra’s faux carnality (the pictures are later brandished by the righteous,  accusing community). As always, this kind of gratuitous invention tells us much more than we want to know about the director than it does about Handel’s music or illuminating the opera at hand.

It’s not clear if Jones or revival director Benjamin Davis is responsible for this adolescent rubbish. But—as the man who gave us Musetta taking off her panties on a restaurant tabletop and waving them about in last fall’s La Boheme—this brand of Eurotrash fits Jones’ M.O.

Lyric management remains in inexplicable thrall to overrated English directors who foist their solipsistic outrages on great operas. (Jones will be back to ruin Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades next season.) But even Lyric’s somnolent board can’t fail to take notice of the hundreds of audience members streaming out of the house at each intermission Saturday, long before the four-hour evening had ended.

Brenda Rae and Kyle Ketelsen in “Ariodante.” Photo: Cory Weaver

Unrecognizable as a bald and bespectacled nerd-villain, Iestyn Davies offered supreme vocalism as Polinesso. Davies’ polished, richly colored countertenor handled nearly all of the technical challenges, though hearing such excellent singing from such a despicable character felt oddly foreign. Dramatically, Davies embodied the strutting, odious Polinesso with relish, his heavily tatted arms apt for this sexually dangerous criminal. The literal-minded audience members who loudly booed Davies at the curtain call should have saved their catcalls for the director.

The best singing among the women in the cast came from Heidi Stober as Dalinda. She was a compelling dramatic presence throughout and brought verve and panache to her showy arias, tossing off the coloratura in fleet, vivacious style while bringing expressive depth to the conflicted character. One felt sorry for the demeaning bits of business this staging put this talented soprano through.

The subbing Julie Miller respectably covered the trousers role of Ariodante. A former Ryan Opera Center member, the tall mezzo made an aptly dashing presence as the opera’s hero, though opening night her acting was mainly limited to striking forthright poses.

Miller’s voice is somewhat anodyne and straitened in color but, in one of Handel’s showiest roles, she handled the technical demands with mostly assurance and facility. What was lacking was the kind of whirlwind brilliance and vocal excitement this role really requires.

Taken at a glacial tempo, “Scherza infida” was cautious and blandly sung, Miller not exploring much of the rich expressive potential of Ariodante’s epic Act II aria. She became more confident as the evening unfolded, and produced some belated fireworks in the joyful showpiece “Dopo notte,” throwing off the roulades and coloratura with greater abandon.

In her company debut Brenda Rae proved a mixed blessing as Ginevra .“Volate amori”—done with awkward happy dancing on the long table—was rhythmically slack with wayward intonation, Rae’s shallow soprano painfully squally on high notes. The singer had pitchy moments later as well, though the slower, more tragic arias seemed to suit her better as Ginevra becomes unhinged. Rae’s acting was similarly uneven—at times affecting, at others miles over the top with spasmodic twitching. Jones’ staging conceit of making Ginevra into a Tragic Victim of Male Patriarchy only succeeded in making the character a dull cardboard symbol.

Looking comfortably at home in a kilt, Kyle Ketelesen brought his firm and incisive bass-baritone to the King of Scotland, singing with warm feeling and expression, and bringing a welcome—if fitfully misguided—sense of moral authority to the sordid proceedings.

A first-year Ryan Center member, Eric Ferring made the most of his opportunities as Lurcanio. The Iowa native is a real find, possessing a vibrant tenor with juice and throwing off his showpiece aria, “Il tuo sangue” with impressive fire and agility. Too bad Jones’ worst excesses upstaged the singer’s spotlit moments. 

His fellow Ryan Center tenor Josh Lovell displayed a strong voice as the sea captain Odoardo. The small chorus of townspeople sang with robust impact.

The scene design by “Ultz” updates the Handel in the Highlands motif effectively enough to the 1970s, with a unit set painting a Scottish clan’s lodge. Not so much the constant use of small raised white boxes on poles to depict doors being opened and closed—the pantomime quickly became irritating as the singers moved them about ceaselessly. Ultz’s costumes set the Scottish scene with Aran cardigans and kilts, though the dismal, baggy yellow trousers and black pullover for Ariodante looked decidedly unheroic. 

One way to save money on ballet sequences is to use puppets instead. The wryly sardonic puppetry was mostly clever and amusing—not least when the puppet representing the shamed Ginevra is transformed from pure wife and mother into a slatternly hooker with black leather miniskirt and bright red platform heels.

The most consistent element of this dizzyingly wayward evening was the stylish and vivacious playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Harry Bicket. The English conductor has few peers in this repertoire, and the finely balanced, lightly sprung ensemble was a pleasure throughout despite the ugliness taking place onstage.

You can catch Bicket conducting Music of the Baroque Wednesday night at the Harris Theater, which—minus any theatrical Jones-ing— should be a more congenial experience.

Ariodante runs through March 17. lyricopera.org

Posted in Performances

21 Responses to “Worthy Handel singing buried by scabrous excess in Lyric Opera’s “Ariodante””

  1. Posted Mar 03, 2019 at 7:32 pm by Barbara Mills

    Bravo! Now I must read your review of La Boheme. I am in complete concurrence with your identification of Jones’ directorial Eurotrash as his M.O.

  2. Posted Mar 03, 2019 at 8:18 pm by Anne-Marie

    Thank you for this honest review which will save me the pain and expense of buying a ticket to this travesty of Handel’s opera! For the past several years Lyric Opera has lowered its artistic standards by indulging in crass and vulgar productions of well-loved operas. I certainly don’t understand the rationale behind their “artistic” vision. One might as well save hundreds of dollars in opera tickets and watch reality TV instead! Tragic betrayal of a revered art form.

  3. Posted Mar 03, 2019 at 9:28 pm by Andrew

    This whole production sounds so embarrassing, I winced through this entire review. What is going on at Lyric and when will it end?!

  4. Posted Mar 03, 2019 at 11:43 pm by Randy

    Absolutely spot-on review! And so much more honest than the sycophantic review in the Tribune.

    We are 20+year subscribers so actually had the misfortune of perfect seats for this perfectly terrible production in its Saturday premiere. Someone wise once said there’s nothing less cool than trying to be cool. This production was totally un-cool. Tone deaf to the times. And misogynist to its core. Trying so hard to be relevant & meaningful made the director’s FAIL the only thing dramatic about the piece.

    The set was boring. The costumes were boring. The pace of the production was boring. It struck us all the director was bored, so substituted distractions, flagrantly in poor taste and childish, in an attempt to mask his own lack of talent.

    Our only bravo goes to Eric Ferring, who you point out made the most of his opportunities as Lurcanio. We just felt sorry for the rest of the cast. And we should point out, we were not alone. Many left after the first act. And, sorry we stayed, we ran for the exits with many, many more after the painfully long second, before the final act. Handel’s beautiful music deserves SO much better!

  5. Posted Mar 04, 2019 at 8:00 am by Randolph W Roller

    Looking forward to seeing this later in March. I like productions that push the envelope even when it’s pushed a little too far. Handel can be boring and you make this sound very interesting.

    It must not be easy when the titular character has to stay home in bed for the prima. Kudos to all for ‘the show must go on’.

  6. Posted Mar 04, 2019 at 8:42 am by Lisa

    Thank you! Any review of this that didn’t use the word “crass” wasn’t being honest. Spot on. I second everything Randy said, too. Hearing Eric Ferring for the first time was a highlight. And Heidi Stober was the great relief, a true Baroque voice. Probably if she wasn’t there I would have thrown tomatoes.

    I was disappointed by the Tribune review and relieved to find some other people who were actually in the same room as me on Saturday night. I wasted anticipation on hearing Alice Coote sing again for a few months, but it’s understandable. This was a memorably bad production. And, yes, you even mentioned the tragic distraction of those “doors.” It’s amazing that the same stage that can hold Valhalla can’t manage to fit in a shack in Scotland from the 70s. Set designer – please practice your art in another city.

  7. Posted Mar 04, 2019 at 9:01 am by LC

    Wow! There are a lot of sourpuss patrons stuck in a certain generation.

  8. Posted Mar 04, 2019 at 11:37 am by jjwp

    You forgot to mention Elza van den Heever missing her last Chrysothomis in Elektra. As for “Ginevra” (for this was NOT “Ariodante”!), I was reminded of the hideous Rigoletto of 2000. Why is it that directors, instead of finding a new opera that does what they want, feel they must tamper with existing operas? I have three more tickets I will not be using. And so far I cannot find anyone else who wants them!

  9. Posted Mar 04, 2019 at 2:28 pm by Anne-Marie

    It isn’t a question of being “sourpuss patrons being stuck in a certain generation” but of knowing and appreciating art and artistry at the highest levels. The directorial license that Lyric Opera has overindulged and allowed of late only serves to mask the dearth of creativity in these productions.If a director has no better interpretation of a composer’s music, stripping and sexual excess seem to be their standard tools! Where is the truth of the composer in all this?

    I wholeheartedly agree with the observation about the sycophantic Tribune review. Four stars? Ah, where is John Von Rhein when we need him?

    Thanks again, Mr. Johnson!

  10. Posted Mar 04, 2019 at 4:08 pm by Dorothie

    I was trusting that the production would have been modified before Tuesday’s matinee. I hoped reaction to rehearsal last Wednesday would have at least eliminated the illustrations which even raunchy 7th graders would have hidden under the bed.

    Lyric audience members are ADULTS. We don’t crave adolescent excess on stage. We need top notch music and lively pacing. Lyric should stimulate audience enthusiasm not disdain..

    Provocation should enrich not diminish a production. Respect for performers and audience is vital.

  11. Posted Mar 05, 2019 at 2:40 pm by David

    The tendency to perform, record and stage Handel as a set of somersaults of ever- increasing stupidity and distance from the original (usually in the name of authentic period performance and do-and-daring) really should go into reverse. Remember the first rediscovery of Handel’s oratorios in the 1960s and 1970s? Stellar singing and deep respect for the music with no pretences or mimicking purported historicity.


  12. Posted Mar 05, 2019 at 6:53 pm by Jim Edwards

    Spot on review of this confusing misdirected opera. Tuesday afternoon performance had Alice Coote take the lead role with a note from stage she was still in recovery (cut her some slack)! NO need. Her singing was astonishing but still could not save this campy bizarre version of Handel. A long four hours to stomach.

  13. Posted Mar 06, 2019 at 6:37 am by John

    It’s important to distinguish between provocation and juvenality. Sexualizing Ariodante is an old trick. Anyone who’s seen the David Alden production knows the routine: impose your own whims over the text and music, and create your own fantasy world.

    This production was much, much worse. It offered nothing but sophomoric images that insulted the audience and music. Really, just look at the empty seats around you. Is that what the Lyric has come to?

  14. Posted Mar 07, 2019 at 2:34 pm by Ann McDonald

    I am a long time opera fan who grew up and still lives in Milwaukee. I have been fortunate to see opera staged in many cities and have even had the pleasure of seeing several performances at the Met in NYC.

    Unfortunately, Ariodante was my first Lyric Opera performance and I am in complete agreement with this review. The beautiful music and talented singing was trashed by the production. I even thought the puppets were awful. How can anyone take pole-dancing puppets seriously? I left wondering who would find this production appealing and why the Lyric would want to attract such people? How very sad.

  15. Posted Mar 08, 2019 at 7:21 am by Jim

    We were at Saturday night’s performance. I can only agree with part of this review, as we left after the first intermission instead of subjecting ourselves to another three hours of torture. I am fine with updated stagings of classic works, but do expect the staging to have some connection with what is being sung or said.

    Not so here. This was gratuitous, distracting, and annoying. My wife tried closing her eyes so she could at least focus on the music, but that really isn’t the point of live opera.

    I read the Tribune’s review the next day and wondered if we had been at the same performance. I’ve been glad to find several reviews since that called this production what it is: a waste of time and money.

  16. Posted Mar 08, 2019 at 9:29 pm by Wayland rogers

    I agree wholeheartedly with this review. It’s one of the stupidest stagings I have ever witnessed. I couldn’t make it past the first act. Why is this director and set designer allowed to work at Lyric? Eurotrash indeed.

  17. Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 6:23 pm by jlp

    @ Dorothie- “I was trusting that the production would have been modified before Tuesday’s matinee.”

    This was a multi-company co-production, and my understanding is that in that situation changes are not permitted. Too bad.

  18. Posted Mar 12, 2019 at 12:58 pm by Therese Kelleghan

    I attended Ariodante on its opening night and exited at the first opportunity after the disgusting and egregious display, enactment and normalization of sexual harassment and assault of women and actors on stage. This production was appalling and misogynistic to the point that, one week later, I still struggle to rid myself of the offense and emotional violence that lingers within my psyche.

    FEMALES BEWARE: the worst parts of what we experience as women in a society where our bodies are too frequently considered property are acted out on stage. If you do not see the pain and misogyny in this production, you need to SEE women…LISTEN to women…BELIEVE women! I recommend that the Lyric CLOSE THIS PRODUCTION IMMEDIATELY.

  19. Posted Mar 12, 2019 at 10:26 pm by Peter DG

    We attended the performance last night and although I usually share LAJ’s reaction to Lyric’s attempt to emulate contemporary euro-trash, this production was not all that distressing.

    I’m not a baroque music fan: 4 minutes is OK, but 4 hours? Fortunately Harry Bicket didn’t indulge in that moaning sound that academia thinks correctly represents the baroque period. The countertenor voice we’ve heard at the Lyric in recent years is just too artificial and shrill to my ears, but Davies’s voice was surprisingly tolerable. The only other countertenor voice that sounded OK to me was Bejun Mehta years back.

    The staging is distracting, unsupported by the text, and at times revolting, but without it this would be a very boring 4 hours. As noted by others, the singers were outstanding. Ferring was an unexpected standout.

  20. Posted Mar 15, 2019 at 9:35 am by Mataro

    Suffering through last evening’s performance of “Ariodante,” I realized that attending the Lyric has become the perfect classical-music analogue to the Trump presidency. Each ill-conceived and frequently tasteless production is executed with generally sub-par vocal deliveries, and yet with each one, we become increasingly inured to the awfulness. Maybe it’s time to start booing or, in the grand European tradition, whistling. I expect to be pursing my lips a lot next season now that this awful one has been laid to rest.

  21. Posted Mar 18, 2019 at 5:24 am by Lin

    I’ll preface this by saying that I was in complete sympathy with your review of the Lyric’s recent Siegfried and do not as a rule love ‘revisionist’ productions. And I agree that some of the innovations of this production are sophomoric/unsuccessful (like the nude drawings and the crudeness of Polinesso’s sexual violence).

    However, I found the fundamental conceit of the production persuasive, disturbing, even revelatory–that is, that beneath the veneer of romance and intrigue, the basic story of this opera and, by implication, how many other similar stories, is one of women’s subordination to and degradation by the desires and fantasies, both positive and negative, of men–the contradictory and complicated myths of woman as virgin and as whore, as Simone de Beauvoir has so effectively described. Fantasies which, to be fair, women tend to share and reinforce as long as they serve her own interests as well; both Dalinda and Ginevra begin with romantic fantasies of which they are rudely (dis)abused.

    I found the puppetry strangely affecting and part of its effectiveness came from the sense that both Ginevra and Ariodante are puppets of sorts, whipped around by the collective dream (in which they share–until the end).

    I am relatively new to opera and not yet a connoisseur of the vocals; I did get to hear Alice Cooke and found all of the women’s arias generally sublime.

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