Ginevra and Ariodante, as they celebrate their burgeoning love, navigate a brutally misogynistic world in Richard Jones’ production of Handel’s emotionally probing opera. From the outset, the King of Scotland and his isolated community (updated from Medieval times to the 1960s/70s) are under the forceful sway of Polinesso in the guise of a corrupt Calvinist priest. According to Polinesso, women are the root of evil. His efforts to destroy the relationship of Princess Ginevra and Ariodante do not unfold as planned, but his widespread influence ultimately divides them in Jones’ reading of the work. Ginevra cannot thrive in a space so inhospitable to women as independent individuals.

Iestyn Davies (Polinesso), Kyle Ketelsen (King) and Brenda Rae (Ginevra) © Cory Weaver
Iestyn Davies (Polinesso), Kyle Ketelsen (King) and Brenda Rae (Ginevra)
© Cory Weaver

Baroque opera returns to Chicago Lyric Opera’s stage with vibrancy and urgency in this co-production, which has rolled out in Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, and Toronto since 2014. Period continuo instruments and the nuanced direction of conductor Harry Bicket invest the musical landscape with theatrical dynamism, while the production (revival director Benjamin Davis) as a whole explores the story as relevant today. Ginevra is, without doubt, framed in the original plot by Polinesso. The machinator’s enhanced role in Jones’ interpretation brings social context to the foreground. His voyeuristic and abusive tendencies emerge early on, from the moment he enters Ginevra’s bedroom through a window. Dalinda, fatefully drawn to this manipulative figure, literally disrobes Polinesso to reveal his denim-clad gritty self.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies richly fleshed out Polinesso as a pervasively controlling figure. Luxurious and varied vocal timbres, amply powered, fuelled his agile stage presence. His object of desire and nemesis, Ginevra, was equally strong in Brenda Rae’s portrayal (her Lyric debut). Rae’s abundant energy, both physically and vocally, undergird Ginevra’s genuine optimism, subsequent despair and eventual self-determination. Davies and Rae’s performances were platinum quality in every sense.

Brenda Rae (Ginevra) and Kyle Ketelsen (King of Scotland) © Cory Weaver
Brenda Rae (Ginevra) and Kyle Ketelsen (King of Scotland)
© Cory Weaver

While obviously disappointing that mezzo-soprano Alice Coote (scheduled as the title character) fell victim to illness opening night, the chance to experience understudy Julie Miller in the role was rewarding. Ariodante is something of a 2-D heroic figure. He is easily and falsely convinced of Ginevra’s infidelity via Polinesso’s charades, but fails to end his own life when he tries. Ariodante’s suffering, however, was exquisitely expressed and Miller fully inhabited the role from the Act 2 lament “Scherza infida” onwards. Heidi Stober’s Dalinda also grew in complexity and vocal prowess as the performance progressed, as guided by Handel’s dramatization. By Act 3, when she called for thunderbolts of revenge, Stober's Dalinda was a top tier musical-dramatic figure. Lurcanio, her admirer, was a full-blooded figure in Eric Ferring’s compelling performance. Kyle Ketelsen’s King was musically satisfying as is Josh Lovell’s Odoardo.

The unit set, designed by Ultz, offers three interior spaces in an open concept style within a comfortable bourgeois home. This offered the opportunity to perceive multiple enacted dramatic levels at once. Particularly effective was Polinesso’s deception of Ariodante, with Dalinda dressed as Ginevra. What could be construed as mere role-playing and some behind closed doors fooling around becomes a dangerously serious counterpoint to Ariodante’s anguish, carefully staged timing-wise so as not to compete with the hero’s emotional outpouring.

Iestyn Davies (Polinesso), Josh Lovell (Odoardo), Brenda Rae (Ginevra), Kyle Ketelsen (King) © Cory Weaver
Iestyn Davies (Polinesso), Josh Lovell (Odoardo), Brenda Rae (Ginevra), Kyle Ketelsen (King)
© Cory Weaver

The community of non-singing extras in this production includes a fleet of puppeteers who spring into action during the musical stretches originally choreographed as dance numbers. At the end of Act 1, when all bodes well for Ginevra and Ariodante’s marriage, puppet lookalikes (designed by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes) anticipate their married and chaotic life with many offspring. When things look bleak, at the end of Act 2, the Ginevra puppet seems fated for a dissolute life. Cleverly, the Act 3 dance sequence involves a return to the Act 1 puppetry scenario, as if all wrongs have been righted and the normal course of things restored. The concept of contrast and return is fundamental to Baroque opera, but so is the idea of variation in the return to the original, in the form of a singer’s personal vocal decoration of the main melody. As Ariodante pledges his allegiance to the King and his world, signaling a restoration to order, it is more than fitting that Ginevra cuts her own path forward.

*****