When thinking of the plethora of opera houses in Germany, Stuttgart may not be the first to spring to mind. However the surprisingly intimate 1,400 seat Württembergisches Staatstheater is no stranger to international acclaim having won more Opernwelt “Opera House of the Year” awards than any other company. Richard Strauss conducted the première of the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos there in 1912 but more relevant is the fact that after 200 years languishing in operatic oblivion, Handel’s Ariodante was first resuscitated in 1926 – in Stuttgart.

The most striking feature of Jussi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s mise-en-scène was the insertion of large chunks of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Lettre à M. D'Alembert into Salvi’s libretto, which were read by Polinesso. Written in 1758, this priggish polemic warns how theatre is sure to corrupt the morals of the good citizens of Geneva, as well as destroying every shred of respectability ladies lured to the stage may have had. Considering Handel was the consummate “man of the theatre” such an inclusion was inapposite and distracting. Even worse, the quotations (which were read in German) occurred during the sinfonia/ballet sections of the score which meant that some peppy gavottes and romantic rondeaux were subsumed by Polinesso’s not so dulcet amplified declamations. It also made the mendacious Machiavellian seducer the pivotal character in the opera. Ariodante’s despair, attempted suicide and ultimate reconciliation with the wrongly condemned Ginevra was almost a subplot. Polinesso is in literal and operatic terms a puppeteer Dappertutto. When not blatantly controlling the other characters (including stringing Dalinda up in electrical wire) or sitting on top of an enormous lighting frame reading Rousseau as if an erudite Erebus, he is snapping photos like a pushy paparazzo. Instead of Ginevra’s honour being defended by stout Celtic claymores, the duel takes places in a 1970s boxing ring where Lurcanio delivers Polinesso a fatal knockout.

Despite the inordinate and intrusive stage business, there was much to enjoy in this highly original production, especially the tight ensemble nature of the performance. All cast members interacted splendidly which attested to an abundance of rehearsal time which is not always the case in more famous houses.

Musically, things seemed closer to Mascagni than Handel. Attention to correct Baroque style was minimal, runs and roulades often unfocused and da capo repetitions generally deficient in the requisite virtuosic ornamentation. Ana Durlovski (Ginevra) could have been singing Lola and her sassy flirtatiousness and unsubtle sexuality made Lurcanio’s denunciation of her virtue all too plausible. Durlovski’s metallic timbre and persistent vibrato was also unsuited to the ostensible innocence of the character and her ravishing aria “Vezze, lusinghe” lacked nuance and lyricism. The duplicitous Dalinda of Josefin Feiler was undistinguished. As the ubiquitous Polinesso, American countertenor Gerald Thompson attempted to compensate for fuzzy phrasing and poor intonation with a few fortissimo crowd-pleasing high notes in “Dover, giustizia” but his Rousseau readings were much more accomplished than his Handelian fioratura. Matthew Brook was a convivial King and surprisingly moving in the “Invida sorte avara” scena but the vocal line was often caliginous. Stuttgart Opernstudio alumnus Kai Kluge sang an impressive Lurcanio and “Il tuo sangue” displayed a warm timbre with innate musicality.

Croatian mezzo Diana Haller was a convincing Ariodante. She also showed remarkable athleticism by swinging from rings like a Cirque du Soleil gymnast during “Con l’ali di costanza”. “Qui d’amor” was beautifully phrased and “Se tanto piace” revealed an impressive upper range. With its diabolic leaps and fast roulades, “Dopo notte” was the usual showstopper, although “Scherza infida” was slightly underwhelming.

Following the current trend of turning every Baroque Allegro into Prestissimo, Giuliano Carello led the reduced Staatsorchester Stuttgart with vivacity if not veracity. The Larghetto sections were much better paced, with the orchestral accompaniment to “Cieca notte” being especially sensitive. 

There were no major cuts but several da capo directions were neglected, Ginevra’s “Mi palpita il core” being a regrettable example. The chorus of happy peasants in Act 1 and jubilant lairds and landed gentry in Act 3 was sung by the principals with a particularly jaunty “Si godete al vostro amor”. The lower strings tended to dominate the orchestral sound and the large continuo section (viola da gamba, bass, teorbor, lute and cembalo) was generally inaudible. The strings played modern violins using Baroque bows which was a curious compromise. Valve horns lacked the ideal raspiness but trumpets were scintillating.

A single interval was taken after Polinesso’s “Se l’inganno” which, fitting the the dramaturgy, gave the rancourous Rousseau-phile the last word. Lazarus-like, Polinesso also reappeared at the opera’s conclusion to be welcomed by his colleagues and deliver another diatribe against thespians and theatregoers. 

This Ariodante may have had many directional quirks but there were enough fireworks to have inspired Handel himself.