Handel's Ariodante is a celebration of faith and conjugal love, which triumphs despite the intrigues and the lies of envious schemers. The Christian knight Ariodante comes back to Scotland after a Crusade to marry Ginevra, the only daughter of the King, and to inherit the kingdom. The evil Polinesso has his own ambitions to the throne and to Ginevra’s hand, so he manages to convince Ariodante that his betrothed is unfaithful. Ariodante loses his mind at the news and tries to commit suicide, until the plot is unravelled and love triumphs in the end.

Ann Hallenberg (Ariodante) and Roberta Mameli (Ginevra) © Mats Bäcker
Ann Hallenberg (Ariodante) and Roberta Mameli (Ginevra)
© Mats Bäcker

Director Nicola Raab made full use of the wonderful Drottningholm Court Theatre and its original features, presenting, in the first act, all the characters dressed in 18th-century costumes (by Gesine Völlm) on a stage where the settings changed to columns creating perspective, to trees, to clouds. All the characters were always on stage, whether they were singing or not, fairly static, moving like puppets, twirling their hands, not interacting. This gave the idea of people trying to find themselves, to understand their own true nature, and to discern their reality, the time and the space they were immersed in. This self-absorption, however, did nothing to clarify the relationship among them and their interaction remained unexpressed and unexplained.

In the second act, where the emotional temperature rises as the drama unfolds, the theme of self-discovery went a step further. Costumes were removed, to reveal corsets and wicker panniers underneath. A large mirror formed the backdrop of the stage, where the singers could gaze on themselves during the most emotional moments. Dancers dressed in black were ominously present on stage, but their function wasn’t clear, nor what they were supposed to represent. In the third act, everybody was in their underwear, but, contrary to what might be expected, this didn’t help the interaction among the characters, nor the telling of the story, nor the explanation of the black-clothed dancers. Overall, the production resulted aloof, distant and difficult to decipher.

<i>Ariodante</i> at Drottningholm © Mats Bäcker
Ariodante at Drottningholm
© Mats Bäcker

On the musical front, things went considerably better. The Drottningholm Theatre Orchestra proved to be very much at ease and well prepared; they exuded a sense of confidence and relaxation even through the most challenging sections. The tempi were constantly well chosen; conductor Ian Page took some daring liberties in the slow arias, letting the moments of silence linger for what seemed an eternity, while we held our breath. It was a brave, successful decision. Special mention goes to the natural horns (Ulrich and Karen Hübner) sailing through the difficulties of their part, and to the continuo (harp, harpsichord, cello) constantly sustaining the singers with thoughtful and precise support. Page chose to perform a thoroughly integral version, with no cuts: we were able to enjoy the beautiful ballet music that closes each of the three acts, with first violin Maria Lindal shining in her solos.

Christophe Dumaux (Polinesso) © Mats Bäcker
Christophe Dumaux (Polinesso)
© Mats Bäcker

In the title role, Ann Hallenberg confirmed her status as one of today's best Baroque singers. Her coloratura was superb, especially in “Con l’ali di costanza”, where she managed to shape every phrase, even amid the fastest roulades. In “Scherza infida”, the highlight of the evening, she held the audience captive with forceful emotions, supported by a wonderful bassoon obbligato (Jani Sunnarborg). In the unusual cadenza she found a blue note that just broke our hearts.

Ginevra was Roberta Mameli, whose luscious, rich soprano gave the Scottish princess an uncommon depth of character. She showed great originality in the cadenzas, gracing us with a bold, single pianissimo high B replacing the cadenza in “Il mio crudel martoro”, a courageous choice, which paid off.

Ann Hallenberg (Ariodante) © Mats Bäcker
Ann Hallenberg (Ariodante)
© Mats Bäcker

Christophe Dumaux sang a confident, unstoppable Polinesso. He seems to be in a magic moment of his career: his unusual timbre richer and rounder than ever, with spectacular high notes and no trace of acidity, or edges. He radiates a fascinating confidence, singing the most brutally hard coloratura with no trace of effort and originality in the variations. He loves this role, and he owns it.

Francesca Aspromonte was a strong Dalinda (Ginevra’s confidante), her aria “Neghittosi” suitably fierce and secure. Bass Johannes Weisser showed some insecurity at times (first night nerves?), with a whitened timbre in the first act aria and some (minor) intonation problems in the following. Overall his performance was enjoyable, with a heartfelt interpretation of “Al sen ti stringo”. Tenor Martin Vanberg, as Lurcanio, also had a rocky start, but gave us a great performance of his two bravura arias in the second and third act.

****1