My second time through the Canadian Opera Company’s Ariodante yesterday raised more questions in my mind.
There are the vocal questions, ones that aren’t new. I have long wondered about the way we perceive operatic performance, that a perfect performance is sometimes less sympathetic than one that shows more of a struggle. I used to contrast Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland in this regard, that one singer’s vocal production was itself a drama, compared to the other, who never seemed to have a struggle creating the sound. I don’t want to add any layers of judgment to this, as I am not even sure I am reading this correctly, but some timbres and/or interpretive approaches work better for some roles than others.
But some of the singers in the COC Ariodante sang a performance that was mostly free of drama, while others made their vocalization another layer of the interpretation.
Jane Archibald as Ginevra is at the centre of the story, singing Handel with a near-perfect approach to every phrase, an ease that reminded me of Joan Sutherland. There was never a moment when I wondered whether she could sing the part, never a phrase that seemed difficult. That effortless style is perhaps a good match for her role, as the innocent princess blind-sided by slander: plus a mysterious liquid someone slips into her drink.
I would contrast her delivery sharply with that of her betrothed, Ariodante, as portrayed by Alice Coote. They’re not only in different vocal categories of course but portraying different genders. Yet Coote undertakes something very different. In her coloratura she lets her emotions show, so that when she’s distraught, the notes almost seem to overwhelm her. When she sings her long lament “Scherza infida” –the moment I would call the musical highlight of the performance yesterday –we hear a great variety of sounds. The passions of the character seem to be having their way with Ariodante. And later when supposedly celebrating the upcoming happy resolution, Coote offers something very subtle and profound, in the aria “Dopo notte, atra e funesta”. It’s usually the signal of the reversal of fortunes and signal of a happy ending to come.
But there are some significant differences in this production, as I noted in my earlier review.
And so both Ginevra and Ariodante have some very complex emotions as they come to the final numbers. With Coote I am reminded of something we don’t see so much anymore: the use of a timbre to signal something complex and ambiguous. I remember singers such as Maria Callas or Cesare Valetti creating a sense of sadness or melancholy within a single note. While the music seemed to signal a happy resolution, Coote’s voice said something very different.
Ambur Braid as Dalinda also ventured into this dangerous territory, a wonderfully vulnerable portrayal, while her voice dared to risk all in her stratospheric ventures.
And then there’s the question of the story itself, a tale that might seem anti-feminist if not misogynistic in its enactment. One woman is abused, while an innocent one is jailed. Modernizing the story –as the production does in its setting—puts a curious sort of pressure on it. Instead of placing Ginevra in a medieval prison, remote from the others while awaiting the outcome of the trial combat and therefore alone with her misery, she’s under a kind of house arrest in her bedroom. As a result there are additional horrors in the community censure she experiences, strongly altering the way she experiences her father’s judgment. Where we might roll our eyes at the rigidity of the old story, we can’t ignore the way it plays in the newer context, and therefore may sense the inevitability of the outcome we get in this production.
During the curtain calls I recognized a familiar face, namely Sylvain Bergeron playing lute among the cellists, earning them special recognition at the end and deservedly so. Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra sound marvelous playing this Handel score. I’m delighted to see that almost every remaining performance of Norma and Ariodante seem to be sold out. And no wonder.