There were male men, female women and – this being a Handel opera – female men; but what would the composer have made of the singers’ septet of natty suits, slinky gowns and outlandish trouser outfits? They were more London Fashion Week 2018 than Covent Garden 1734. And it didn’t matter a jot because the sound the wearers made was bliss.

The <i>Ariodante</i> cast © Robert Workman
The Ariodante cast
© Robert Workman

In Ariodante, a.k.a. “the one with ‘Scherza infida’”, a small cast tells a slender tale. Prince Ariodante loves Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, who loves him in return and snubs the jealous Polinesso. He, spurred to revenge, turns the head of the young princess’s innocent lady-in-waiting, Dalinda. Three or four hours later, good triumphs over evil and it all ends happily.

Harry Bicket and The English Concert are currently touring Handel’s masterpiece on two continents, with two eponymous leads. In the United States Joyce DiDonato sang Ariodante, but owing to her indisposition Alice Coote has stepped in at short notice to cover the European dates. The British mezzo, who has only recently recovered from illness herself, delivered a no-holds-barred account of the role: intensely physical with echoes of her recent Octavian for the Royal Opera, and powerfully dramatic. Her account of “Scherza infida” will have been over-interpreted for some tastes, pulled around rather than inflected, but her duet of reconciliation with Christiane Karg’s Ginevra, “Bramo aver mille vite”, was ecstatically controlled.

Sonia (Prina Polinesso) and Mary Bevan (Dalinda) © Robert Workman
Sonia (Prina Polinesso) and Mary Bevan (Dalinda)
© Robert Workman

Karg and Mary Bevan as Dalinda were the most affecting of the soloists. Their characters’ briefly tragic, intensely human story inspired singing that was ravishing and, more than anyone else’s, completely attuned to the artistry of Bicket and his players. Bevan’s facial acting when her conflicted soul surrendered to an acknowledgement of guilt in colluding with Polinesso was remarkable for being both moving and complex. It’s hard to believe that she too was a late stand-in.

Karg, in peerless voice, sang Ginevra like a pearl and found plenty of depth in her not-very-interesting character. It must have been awkward for the German soprano, having sung a profoundly beautiful “Il mio crudel martoro” at the end of the second act, to stand transfixed in anxious grief while Bicket delivered himself of Handel’s three ballet movements; but she managed it and howled a desolate “Che vidi?” to herald the interval.

Matthew Brook (King of Scotland) and David Portillo (Lurcanio) © Robert Workman
Matthew Brook (King of Scotland) and David Portillo (Lurcanio)
© Robert Workman

Sonia Prina, ever the characterful Handelian, lip-smacked her way through Polinesso’s dastardly doings. Her diesel-powered contralto invited shudders and thrills in her various set pieces, for example in “Se l'inganno sortisce”, her malevolent aria in act 2, when her rapid runs spiralled spectacularly downwards in baleful intent. If anything, though, Prina’s freedom to hog the Barbican platform encouraged her to mug excessively, and ultimately she was too funny for a character who tends to the nefarious. Prina is a stage animal par excellence, but sometimes less is more.

Of the “male men”, Bradley Smith acquitted himself well in the tiny role of Odoardo while his fellow tenor David Portillo sang as impeccably as ever as the noble Lurcanio. Matthew Brook, magnificent and only fractionally hammy as a man in extremis, made up for a suspect low register with a harrowing, uninhibited and wholly inhabited account of the King’s arias.

Canny and experienced composer that he was, Handel took care to husband everyone’s resources across his lengthy score and each of the seven singers had at least one long break offstage. For the instrumentalists it was another matter, and all power to 21-strong English Concert for not wilting as they turned in a probing, exultant and musically tireless performance.