Commentators are busy characterising TV drama The Crown as a soap rather than a respectful slice of history. Yet whenever have dramatists felt restrained by facts? At least the fictionalised House of Windsor isn’t beset by mistaken identities and cardboard villains, unlike myriad operas from the year dot. Take the slim tale of Prince Ariodante who loves Ginevra, the King of Scotland’s daughter, but is thwarted by the poisonous Polinesso who drives a wedge between the couple. The plot doesn’t really bear scrutiny.

Chen Reiss
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Nevertheless, this opera from 1735 is one of Handel’s most enduring stage works even though so little action occupies its hours; for its skeletal plot unfolds at a leisurely pace compared with, say, Giulio Cesare or Alcina. Yet Ariodante (1735) grips the listener by unpicking its characters’ emotions, be they turmoil or desire, and laying bare their inner conflicts.

Stripped of its dances and with a few minor scenes cut away, chiefly those that would require contact or combat, The Royal Opera’s streamed concert version came in at 160 minutes with no interval. If the performers felt taxed by such heavenly length they showed no signs of it, nor indeed did the onstage ROH Orchestra under Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn. Neither singers nor musicians were from his regular Early Opera Company stable but they all responded to his direction with collegiate élan, and even the starriest of them melded into the tapestry he wove.

Two of the male singers appeared only last weekend in ENO’s televised Mozart Requiem yet here they were again, more fortunate than many of their colleagues in getting work during lockdown but undeniably worth their salt. The bass-baritone urbanity of Gerald Finley has never sounded more burnished; he was every inch a king and could easily have tipped attention from his fellow principals were the Royal Opera’s whole cast not so outstanding. Ed Lyon, for his part, is fast becoming an A-list tenor and as our hero’s brother Lurcanio his voice was magisterial.

Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies and the ROH Orchestra
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Lyon’s fellow tenor Thando Mjandana sang with great beauty in the minor role of Odoardo but the performance of the evening, if there had to be just one, came from Chen Reiss as Ginevra, the princess whose betrothal to Ariodante comes close to doom. The Israeli soprano all but stole the 2018 revival of Don Giovanni at the ROH (as Zerlina) but here, if anything, she was even finer. Reiss’ aria of acquiescence to her father, “Io ti bacio”, was plangent and desperate – a heartstopping highlight. Sophie Bevan, meanwhile, portrayed the naïve, ill-used Dalinda as a passionate young woman and employed her rich bank of vocal colours to great effect: fiery and furious in her showpiece aria “Neghittosi or voi”; deeply affecting in her reconciliation duet with Lyon.

This was a concert performance that made no claim to be semi-staged, but Iestyn Davies brought his best dastard to the platform as the conniving Polinesso – an Iago figure, spidery and louche, who strutted as brazenly as he sang. Heck, he even smoked a cigarette, the evening’s only prop and nowadays the shorthand badge of a wrong’un. Few other countertenors are able to drip vocal malevolence the way Davies can, and that is a compliment.

Paula Murrihy
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

It’s the title character rather than her devilish nemesis who gets the best tunes in Ariodante, however, and Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy ate them up. Over an aching bassoon obbligato her great lament “Scherza infida” opened on a moment of anger that faltered to practically nothing as she succumbed to grief. By contrast, she delivered the climactic “Dopo notte” with rapturous delight, each florid run coursing like a surge of laughter through her spirit. All it lacked, alas, was audience applause to round it off. Instead I tapped my mouse in appreciation.

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Opera House's video stream