Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A night of Handel

Tonight I attended my second opera for the 2016-2017 season at the COC, Handel's Ariodante. I didn't know anything about the music or the production before attending and was happy to see an opera that is infrequently performed. As I have aged I have learned that I really love early 18th-century opera, especially operas that feature castrato voices. So it was nice to finally see and hear Ariodante on stage. 

However I found myself tonight wondering about how well 18th-century opera, music that focuses on the voice and performance with an emphasis on a baroque kind of artifice, translates to the modern stage and modern audiences. This production by director Richard Jones has been updated to mid-20th-century Scotland. The set which remained static throughout the three acts consisted of three rooms in the home of a mid-century Scotsman, including a stone kitchen, a great public room and a Ginevra's bedroom. Each room was delineated by design and style and a couple of doors suggested by handles that hinged on the floor. 

The overall feel was enhanced by costumes for the leads and a chorus that emphasized the simple life of a Northern Scottish village although at times the chorus reminded me of a group of extras from a CBC show on Atlantic Canada. There are long sections in Ariodante that are devoted to dances and the director choose to use some puppets to break up these sections. It seems these days every production wants to use puppets even if they don't always fit the piece. In each of the three acts puppets were used, more effectively in the first two and not as well in the last act, which was basically a repetition of the first. The only thing I loved about the final use of puppets was how the director had Ginevra pack up her things and leave the story after all the abuse hurled on her about her honour, which was a really nice up to date and modern touch. 

The singing was, well in the end, inconsistent and I found myself throughout feeling that Handel operas are difficult to stage because so much of the opera was written to showcase the stylistic flourishes so popular in his day. There was a beauty about these pieces, a beauty highlighted by the other-worldly sound of the voice of the castrato, that cannot be recreated by even the most talented female voice. The strongest voice was Jane Archibald's Ginevra. She had a beautiful powerful clear voice that helped create a lot of the mood in the pice. Alice Coote tried hard to recreate the beauty of Ariodante and at times especially her lament in Act Two her voice was actually quiet emotional, especially in her lower and middle registers, but she was unable to fill the flourishes in the upper range with the appropriate power to make them truly magical. There was good, solid singing from Ambur Braid as Dalinda, Owen McCausland as Lurcanio and James as the King but overall nothing really spectacular. I found Varduhi Abrahamyan's voice the weakest of the bunch and the performance more opera buffo than opera seria, but this is something I found disappointing in a lot of modern operas that directors go for a sitcom type laugh through buffoonery rather than building character. 

The staging throughout was at times awkward. I found myself cringing at how some of the singers sang, emoted and moved while on stage. At the same time the director had the chorus move around props and stage items and tried to have them represent the people of the island, but he missed an opportunity to really use them as a Greek chorus that could have underlined the point he was trying to make with each scene. The puppets, which were operated by the chorus, were again cute, but not really as effective as I thought they could have been. It would have been nice to have seen the chorus used in a more direct and effective manner to create tone and mood. 
In the end I am glad I was able to finally hear Ariodante but found myself wondering what it would have been like to have seen and heard it in its original eighteenth-century setting. I like the artifice that is part of the baroque stand and sing, the artifice of the castrato voice and the artifice of the period style. Maybe the problem is that eighteenth-century pieces do not lend themselves easily to modern interpretations or staging. 

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