Richard Jones’ production of Handel’s Ariodante, set in a Scottish fishing village circa 1970, teaches us two things. Firstly, small-minded islanders can be ingeniously creative at puppetry using household items. Secondly, their creativity knows no bounds when shaming those who break their rigorous moral code. Ariodante is Handel at his finest – it does not contain one shred of indifferent music. Unlike many Baroque operas, it has a simple plot with a symmetrical narrative arc. Prince Ariodante is set to marry Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland, but villainous Polinesso besmirches her reputation to win her, and her father’s throne, for himself. Recruiting the aid of her attendant, Dalinda, Polinesso persuades Ariodante that his fiancée is unfaithful. Desperate, Ariodante tries to drown himself and the King denounces Ginevra for her alleged wantonness. When the truth comes out, the royal lovers are reunited. Dalinda finds true love with Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio.

Handel's <i>Ariodante</i> © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Handel's Ariodante
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Turning it into a grisly drama about intolerance, Jones persuasively sets the opera in a suffocating Protestant community. The King does not rule all of Scotland, but, judging by his servants and collection of knives, lords it over the naive villagers. Like them, he takes spiritual guidance from Polinesso, outwardly a pious clergyman, but in reality a violent bully sporting tattoos and studded cuffs. The action takes place indoors, in a three-room set manifesting the boxed collective mind of the parish. The crowd is ever-present, ready to switch from reel-dancing jollity to unspeakable cruelty at the flick of a Bible. All over the set, tartan quarrels with floral wallpaper and the congregation wears jumpers in shades of porridge and boiled sprouts. The dowdiness is endearing at first, but starts giving off a musty stink when everyone turns on Ginevra. Jones’ sympathy lies with her, and he sets her apart with romantic dresses and a dreamy disposition. Her humiliation is staged so convincingly that her temporary madness appears to be the only possible outcome, rather than a familiar plot turn.

An alternative ending suggests irreparable damage. The dance music accompanies puppet shows (puppet designs Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell), calling to mind Sicilian marionette theatre, with its stock-in-trade stories from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, the source of the romance. Here the puppet shows neatly click into the plot, as does everything in this production. “If your handsome face pleases me when you scold me, how much more would I love it when you caress me?”, sings the hapless Dalinda to the Reverend Polinesso just after he beats her black and blue.

Sarah Connolly (Ariodante) and Anett Fritsch (Ginevra) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Sarah Connolly (Ariodante) and Anett Fritsch (Ginevra)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

Musically, the production is just as gratifying, although the combination of set and venue proved less than ideal for Baroque vocalism. (DNO frequently puts on Baroque opera at the smaller Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam.) The raised box containing the set leaves the down-stage area unutilised, widening the distance between stage and public. In the first half of the performance, Sarah Connolly’s rose-quartz mezzo often sounded remote, her finely sung embellishments outbalanced by the orchestra. It did not help that she sang half of Ariodante’s suicide aria, “Scherza infida”, standing sideways. In Act III, the ecstatic “Dopo notte” was far more penetrating, so this seems to be a question of sound calibration. On opening night, only bass Luca Tittoto, gloriously sonorous as the King, and soprano Anett Fritsch as Ginevra consistently projected over the pit. Ms Fritsch possesses a beautiful instrument and her portrayal of Ginevra was deeply felt. Pouring emotion into every syllable, she tended to attack notes forcibly and emphasise too many of them. More trust in the music and her own voice would have produced more expressive, smoother lines, as she displayed in Ginevra’s heart-rending farewell to her father.

Luca Tittoto (Il Re di Scozia) and Anett Fritsch (Ginevra) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Luca Tittoto (Il Re di Scozia) and Anett Fritsch (Ginevra)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Sonia Prina's degenerate minister Polinesso is not a subtle characterisation, but utterly compelling in its outrageousness. Ms Prina’s voice is rather dry and lacks the contralto colour the music craves. Her thwacking coloratura is not pretty. However, she took command of the role with fantastic technique and vocal flair. In another memorable performance, Sandrine Piau scuffled gracelessly and sang dazzlingly as Dalinda. Her top notes have lost some freshness, but they were all on-target in the revenge aria “Neghittosi or voi che fate?”, discharged while furiously drying the dishes. Andrew Tortise had a variable night as Lurcanio, his tenor thinning out in upward runs, but also showing tonal loveliness in the middle. Christopher Diffey sang well in the small part of Odoardo.

In Baroque, brass will be brass. There were a few wayward trumpet notes and some scuppered horn legato, but the superb Concerto Köln did Handel proud. They palpably luxuriated in the marvellous score. Andrea Marcon conducted with great refinement, avoiding extremes in tempo and contrast. Instead, he brought out the emotional range of the music by means of sensitive syntax. It danced in graceful figures, fretted and fumed and, most touchingly, wept in tragic stillness.