Reviewer's rating

I came to this performance of Ariodante feeling that I had seen enough Handel operas for a while. I left invigorated and ready to acknowledge once more that at their best, and despite the 300 years that separate his heyday from our day, his operas can be dramatically absorbing and musically delightful. With the happy combination of David Bates and Olivia Fuchs as conductor and director – and with the finest student singers – this performance at RAM was full of moments to savour.

The scene is medieval Scotland. Ariodante and Ginevra are to be married, to the delight of her father, the King. But Polinesso also loves Ginevra and recruits his admirer Dalinda to help him fool everyone into thinking Ginevra is unfaithful. Ariodante is distraught and attempts suicide while Ginevra is condemned to death. Ariodante returns, his suicide attempt having failed, and Dalinda, realising she has been deceived, tells him everything. Polinesso is killed in a duel and Ariodante arrives to proclaim Ginevra’s innocence and ask for mercy for Dalinda. The lovers are re-united. This version, with heavy cuts to the original score, tells the story effectively and with dramatic clarity.

There are two alternating casts. After a slightly off-kilter start, Angharad Rowlands  as Ariodante (the role sung by the castrato, Carestini, in the first production in 1735) grows in confidence and in vocal brilliance. She is at her splendid best in Act 3 as she returns to put things to rights. Clara Orif as Ginevra is quite superb vocally and, as the innocent victim of what might have been a dreadful miscarriage of justice, her portrayal of the mystified captive is emotionally charged. As the wicked Polinesso, Rebecca Hart cuts a striking figure – white hair and black suit – but her fine voice could have carried the role with poise even without any costume help, and her seduction of the credulous Dalinda was well portrayed. Erin O’Rourke as Dalinda made the most of one of Handel’s less well-drawn roles, though perhaps the libretto cuts were the real reason why her change of heart seems quite so abrupt. In the supporting roles, the powerful bass voice of Charles Cunliffe as King perhaps stood out but the voices of Henry Ross and Samuel Stopford were of a quality that more than fulfilled my high expectations of an RAM cast. My only reservation, and this applies to most of the singers, is that there is, in student productions, a tendency to push the voice too hard (perhaps to make an impression) in early scenes. On this occasion, by Act 2 all was well.

David Bates is not only a fine conductor of Handel – he is brilliant at bringing the best out of young singers. His care for their opportunities to shine was palpable, and the power of the all too brief choruses was similarly impressive. And with the Royal Academy Sinfonia he had a group of players with a real feeling for the ebb and flow of baroque opera, restrained and supportive for the recitative, fluent and attentive for the arias. Director Olivia Fuchs too has found a visual style for the production that avoids medieval flummery but means that all the singers can find the postures to underline who they are. The whiteboard business – writing up The Rules – in the overture was not universally appreciated by the audience and I really disliked the two outbreaks of disco dancing for the big choral numbers. But these are quibbles vastly outweighed by the effectiveness of the Fuch’s story telling. If the plot is out of the standard baroque bag – thwarted lovers and wicked rivals – the power of the music that Handel conjures up is usually enough to overcome the plot cliches. And with the forces that RAM can muster to bring the plot to life, this is a special evening in their wonderful auditorium.