It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a Handel opera in pursuit of a happy ending must have a few twists and turns, and Ariodante has everything you would expect: two pairs of lovers (one happy, the other unhappy); a sprinkling of unrequited love; a scheming baddy, who gets his comeuppance in the end; a King whose honour is unimpeachable; and one absolutely fabulous tune (“Dopo notte”). The Royal Academy of Music, in a minimalist production by Paul Curran, fielded some wonderful singers, while the Academy Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Jane Glover, created a warm period sound, the theorbo (Richard MacKenzie) nodding gently on the surface of the orchestra’s pit from time to time, like the mast of a ship on a gently rocking sea.

Anna Harvey (Ariodante) and Rosalind Coad (Ginevra) © john.reading.co.uk
Anna Harvey (Ariodante) and Rosalind Coad (Ginevra)
© john.reading.co.uk

The staging is extremely simple: some sculptural Charles Rennie Mackintosh chairs, which stacked in different configurations for different scenes, with a large tilting mirror above, which allowed us to see the singers in reflection when they lie on the floor (as they occasionally did). Everything else was left to the imagination, or implied by light. Designed by Jake Wiltshire, the lighting does all the leg work of creating atmosphere on an otherwise dark stage, with remarkable effectiveness in several scenes. The absolute restraint makes the occasional props – such as the tulips, which the lovers threw around the stage in rage or delight, or the occasional sword – loom larger than life. However, for me, an opera whose plot is so easily anticipated (Ariodante’s series of romantic misunderstandings are very familiar territory) needs a bit more vigour in its staging to be truly compelling. This minimalism, for me, didn’t quite make up for the lack of originality in the plot. Still, it gave us some strikingly memorable tableaux.

It is a great credit to the Royal Academy of Music that they are able to field two full casts.  Anna Harvey was a treat as Ariodante, her bell-clear voice, with its perfect projection, nicely weighted throughout its range. The music fitted her voice perfectly, and she sang with infectious joy. Her rendition of the famous “Dopo notte” was masterly. Rosalind Coad was a passionate, petulant Ginevra, whose tantrums may have threatened to overwhelm her musician’s timing in the first half, but who settled into a compelling performance overall.

Rhiannon Llewellyn (Dalinda) and Angharad Lyddon (Polinesso) © www.john.reading.co.uk
Rhiannon Llewellyn (Dalinda) and Angharad Lyddon (Polinesso)
© www.john.reading.co.uk

Rhiannon Llewellyn's Dalinda was at once sensual and maternal, and wonderfully animated throughout. Polished and mature, she acted with sophisticated emotion and engaged the audience from the start with her beguiling soprano. Ross Scanlon instantly stole my heart as Lurcanio, her unhappy lover. His smooth and lyrical tenor was a pleasure to hear, while his warm stage presence and well-judged acting made Llewellyn’s Dalinda seem all the more heartless for ignoring him (and his very unlucky tulips, which were heartlessly trampled and torn in a delightfully sadistic scene of rejection).

Angharad Lyddon gave a strongly characterized evil schemer of a Polinesso, with plenty of arch glances, sly gestures and conspiratorial asides. Her voice took some time to warm up, but in “Io detesto per sempre” she suddenly came into her own, singing with assurance and panache. She depicted the physicality of a swaggering boy with aplomb, and I couldn’t resist thinking she’d make a fabulous Cherubino. Samuel Queen and Bradley Smith, as the King of Scotland and Odoardo respectively, did as much as they could with their emotionally limited roles, bringing them to life as far as possible. The Chorus, which makes a short, but resounding contribution towards the end of the opera, blew me away.

As part of the London Handel Festival, it is good to see and hear Ariodante in a fully staged performance. I just can’t help wishing it had been staged a little more fully. For plots of great psychological trauma and depth, minimalism can be mesmerising. For light tales of love and dalliance, I’m not sure it’s quite so effective. Fortunately, the Royal Academy of Music’s principals are strong and exciting enough that Handel’s music can still shine; it’s just a pity that, in this production, it can’t move us too.

***11