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Photo by Chris Christodoulou
14 Mar 2016

Ariodante, London Handel Festival

By the time that he composed Ariodante, which was first performed in January 1735, Handel had more than three decades of opera-composing experience behind him. It’s surely one of his greatest music dramas not least because, adapted from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso, it is a very ‘human’ drama, telling of love and lust, betrayal and healing.

Ariodante, London Handel Festival

A review by Claire Seymour

Photos by Chris Christodoulou


The story is set in Scotland, where, Ariosto tells us, 'any woman who engages in union with a man and is not his wife, must be put to death'. In this production, which opened the 2016 London Handel Festival at the Royal College of Music, director James Bonas seemed to travel even further north: there was an Icelandic vibe to the dim hues of cool blue, dull grey and grungy brown of the set and costumes — a monochrome palette and barren ruggedness which reminded me of the violent setting of Orson Welles’ Macbeth. The cast’s distressed combat fatigues and dreadlocks, together with the Scottish King’s pseudo-Arthurian vulnerability, evoked a dystopian hinterland which might be past or future. The bare set enhanced the timelessness: broken branches were suspended aloft, a resolute stump doggedly persisted. In the final act, a purgation by water as effected — not without risk of mishap. Beige curtains swished to and fro across the stage, inferring the passing of time or physical dislocation, but regrettably in noisy fashion. Darkness embraced all — even, at times, the singers, who disappeared into the dim recesses of the subdued stage.

The arias themselves were not encumbered by excessive direction; the singers were encouraged to use the music to communicate rather than indulge in superfluous gesture. The result was directness and a pleasing lack of fussiness.

As the eponymous prince, Kate Coventry worked hard — and with considerable success — to communicate the varied stages of Ariodante’s emotional journey. In the opening act, she conveyed the joy and serenity which springs from our hero’s confidence in Ginevra’s love and his delight at the bestowal of the King’s favour (‘Con l’ali di constanza’) singing with clear, fresh tone and dancing with bright vitality through the intricate melismas. She had staying power too: ‘Scherza infida’ was a bitter explosion of grief, which suggested the destabilising anger which follows his beloved’s perfidy.

London Handel Festival 2016 (2). Ariodante, cast A. c. Chris Christodoulou .png

As was the case with all the impressive cast, Coventry seemed to have little difficulty with the virtuosic demands of her role: ‘Dopo notte’ was gleefully florid, racing through the three-octave compass and powerfully conveying Ariodante’s almost supra-human ecstasy when he learns that his beloved is irreproachable after all. The part of the hero knight was originally written for Carestini, renowned for his agility and stamina; Coventry suggested that she’d have been more than a match.

Sofia Larsson’s Ginevra was impassioned and full of heart; occasionally the sound was a tad sharp-edged and her intonation took a little time to settle, but when she got into her stride we enjoyed dramatic changes of colour. Her lament of despair, ‘Il mio crudel’, was particularly affecting. Coventry’s and Larsson’s voices blended well in the three duets which Handel provides.

Galina Averina sang and acted well as Dalinda: she was foolishly gullible but her naivety and regret won our forgiveness. Averina has a piercing shine at the top and sleekness throughout the range; her virtuosic cascades were impeccably even and smooth. As the evil Polinesso, Elspeth Marrow exhibited the seductive allure of an Iago; although the part seemed to lie a little too low for her, she sang with a rich warmth and smoothness which, ironically, simultaneously belied and embodied the villainy and lustfulness of the cruel and ambitious reprobate.

Paul Aisher demonstrated an appealing tone and firm line as Lurcanio, although he had a tendency to shout in the more impassioned outbursts. Simphiwe Simon Shibambu was more restrained as an introspective King of unwaveringly regal bearing, but his well-focused, beguiling bass is an instrument of great beauty and Shibambu used it with thoughtful musicality to convey the monarch’s pensive dignity. Tenor Joel Williams sang with rich tone in the role of Odoardo.

Laurence Cummings urged the proceedings onwards at a brisk lick — at times too precipitously, I felt; while dramatic intensity accrued as the recitatives tumbled hastily onwards, the undue hurriedness meant that there was a lack of opportunity to absorb the sentiments of the preceding aria before we fell headlong into the next one. The playing of the London Handel Orchestra was vigorous and strong — perhaps the continuo was a little too present in the recitatives — and there were some well-phrased obbligato contributions from oboe and bassoon. However, I felt that, with greater spaciousness, the cast might have been able to show more sensitivity to the text’s emotional weight. While the performances offered much to admire — not least pinpoint accuracy from some of these young singers in the demanding coloratura — there was at times a certain ‘thrill’ lacking.

Claire Seymour

Handel’s Berenice will be performed on 17 March, in St. George’s Hanover Square; it will be followed by the pasticcio Elpidia , at the same venue, on 31 March. For further details see

Ariodante — Kate Coventry, Ginevra — Sofia Larsson, Dalinda — Galina Averina, Polinesso — Elspeth Marrow, Lurcanio — Paul Aisher, King of Scotland — Simphiwe Simon Shibambu, Odoardo — Joel Williams; James Bonas director, Laurence Cummings — conductor, Molly Einchcomb — designer, Rob Casey — lighting designer, London Handel Orchestra

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, 8th March 2016

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