A “Trust in the Lord” text as one might find in tapestry samplers is ever-present above the set of Scottish Opera’s new production of Ariodante, echoing the austerity of John Knox. A glimpse of a grim snowy scene of a hanging with still-twitching bodies swaying on their ropes accompanies the overture and the terrifying words of Deuteronomy 22 thunder out that fornication is punishable by death are printed on the front cloth. This is the rule which governs the story of Ariodante and his princess Ginevra, an innocent woman so viciously wronged that opera directors are challenged to make sense of the outcome. Harry Fehr’s wonderfully smart, elegant production for Scottish Opera throws up some interesting questions.

Caitlin Hulcup (Ariodante) © James Glossop
Caitlin Hulcup (Ariodante)
© James Glossop

For a Baroque opera, the story is remarkably simple, with plot and subplot knitting together in a great arc bringing us back to the start older and wiser. Princess Ginevra and Ariodante are to be wed with the blessings of the King and his court, but Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, recruits Ginevra’s maid Dalinda into a cruel deception. At night-time, Polinesso appears to be led off to Ginerva’s bedchamber, witnessed by Ariodante, but also his brother Lurcanio. Ginerva has gone to sleep happily betrothed but, on waking, is shocked to find herself condemned to death.

Fehr sets the story in the King’s stylish court and with its smartly uniformed maids and gardeners, well dressed royal advisors, colourful military uniforms and vintage frocks, there is a bygone era feel. Designer Yannis Thavoris’ splendid fixed set is of a formal atrium with a short spiral staircase and we look out through floor to ceiling windows onto snow covered mountains. A push-bar-to-open fire escape door roots us firmly in the present. Luxuriant orange bushes flourish in individual pots, with trendy heat lamps protecting them from the snow outside.

Dancers Lucy Ireland and Vince Virr © James Glossop
Dancers Lucy Ireland and Vince Virr
© James Glossop

Scottish Opera has assembled a uniformly strong cast for this production, which is very finely sung. Caitlin Hulcup’s convincingly boyish Ariodante was a study in anguish, her “Scherza infida” heart wrenching, full of melancholy as the blizzards raged outside and a mournful bassoon in the pit amplifyied the sadness. Even at the end of a long evening, her joyful “Dopo notte” was a tour de force, nailing top notes and tricky runs thrillingly. Making her Scottish Opera debut as Ginerva, Sarah Tynan’s clear soprano rang true as her initial joy turned to bafflement and desperation. Countertenor Xavier Sabata was an especially offensive Polinesso, revelling in his dastardly plans with Dalinda, thrillingly sung by Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Jennifer France – a singer to watch. Ed Lyon, as Lurcanio, is given some of the best music to sing in his virtuosic aria “Il tuo sangue”, and a dangerous sword fight with Polinesso to negotiate. Neal Davis was a strongly sung King torn between the love for his daughter and the draconian law.

Sarah Tynan (Ginevra) © James Glossop
Sarah Tynan (Ginevra)
© James Glossop

Nicholas Kraemer conducted a surprisingly full pit of strings from one of two harpsichords, and kept the pace brisk and exciting for the most part. The continuo included a theorbo and occasionally double bass with a chamber organ making an appearance, adding weight to the gravity of Ginevra’s plight. We get spoilt with period Baroque bands, but we could have done with a bit more shape, lightness of touch and sprightliness in places, particularly in the final acts. Handel makes us wait three hours to hear the natural trumpets, and their flourishes at the end added an exciting bite to the sound.

Kally Lloyd Jones, assistant to Fehr and choreographer, has a real eye to what looks good on stage. The direction of the chorus as mostly silent characters in the royal household embellished and added colour to the main story. Two strange blindfolded dancers appeared firstly as entertainment at the betrothal of Ariodante and Ginevra, then in Ginevra’s dream and finally, like icy daggers plunged into the heart of the warm celebrations at the end. Lighting designer James Farncombe’s palette moved from warmth to snowy ice as the tragedy developed. When Ariodante walks out into the blizzard the winter weather moves in and kills the orange plants. The question remains though, can a woman as wronged as Ginevra simply pick up the pieces and move on? Fehr clearly thinks so, but with reservations: the momentary appearance of sinister dancers in flashes of icy white light amongst the revellers and the delicate new orange seedlings being planted out in the pots suggest fragile new beginnings.

This is a successful production and one of which Scottish Opera can be justly proud. It was a very enjoyable evening, so it is a great pity then that there are only five performances split between Glasgow and Edinburgh. For a national company, this Ariodante deserves a wider exposure.