First published in the Guardian on 17 February, 2016
“Enjoy yourself,” sings a caustic Ariodante in this darkest of baroque operas. Violins ripple under the melody and a quiet bassoon steps in where the voice chokes up. The aria is Scherza infida — music that carries profound hurt via simple means and a total synergy between singer and pit. It’s Handel at his most brilliant.
Caitlin Hulcup sings it well in Scottish Opera’s new production: her Ariodante is baffled, callow, subtle. Yet the orchestra under Nicholas Kraemer plays just functionally, and same goes for much of the long evening. Kraemer scrubs out vibrato to get a period-ish sound but doesn’t muster enough verve to match the singers, and I craved more direction in bass lines, more shape in phrases, more spark in syncopations. The cast has to work hard.
Much of the singing is beautiful, though. Sarah Tynan’s Ginevra is dignified and ardent, her voice luminous and agile. Neal Davies is a sonorous King; Jennifer France is show-stealing as a limpid and graceful Dalinda. Weirdly, Xavier Sabata borders panto baddy as Polinesso, stropping and scheming while committing sexual abuse. His voice is robust but the delivery jars, especially beside the more subtly-drawn female characters.
Director Harry Fehr and designer Yannis Thavoris are back after several previous collaborations for Scottish Opera (Orlando, The Flying Dutchman) and they’ve made a tight budget go far. The setting is a frontier community somewhere cold: a slick regime with puritanical Christian vibes and snowy wilderness suggesting American bible belt, maybe Sarah Palin’s Alaska. The curtain rises on a public hanging, feet still twitching under the noose, and in general Fehr isn’t shy of overt imagery. He’s made some big cuts to the score (Ariodante’s bright aria Con l’ali di constanza’ is gone) but oddly leaves in plenty of dubious dance passages. Nothing drags quite like a bit of symbolic blindfolded ballet.