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The English Concert at the Barbican Hall
18 May 2017

The English Concert: a marvellous Ariodante at the Barbican Hall

I’ve been thinking about jealousy a lot of late, as I put the finishing touches to a programme article for Bampton Classical Opera’s summer production of Salieri’s La scuola de' gelosi. In placing the green-eyed monster centre-stage, Handel’s Ariodante surely rivals Shakespeare’s Othello in dramatic clarity and concision, as this terrifically animated and musically intense performance by The English Concert at the Barbican Hall confirmed.

The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sonia Prina and Mary Bevan

Photo credit: Robert Workman


Gone are the supernatural diversions and obfuscating sub-plots which complicate so many of Handel’s libretti. Here, Antonio Salvi, drawing upon Ariosto’s Orlando Jurioso, provides Handel with a blistering human drama of envy and evil, which hinges on the supposed infidelity of the Scottish Princess Ginevra who, loved by Polinesso, Duke of Albany, prefers the noble Ariodante.

Despite receiving only eleven performances during its first season in 1735, Ariodante has long been admired as one of Handel’s finest operas. The part of the hero Ariodante was written for Giovanni Carestini, who was renowned for his versatility, virtuosity and fully working three-octave range. Alice Coote - deputising in the European performances for the indisposed Joyce DiDonato who will resume the role for the American leg of the tour - matched Carestini’s fabled technique and sang with deep commitment: this Ariodante was an immensely sympathetic hero, and the emotional journey he experiences through the opera was laid bare.

In Act 1, Coote exuded regal confidence. Bold but dignified, Coote used her gloriously rich, bronzed mezzo to convey Ariodante’s serenity and certainty in ‘Quì d’amor’. As her lines floated freely, at times there was a rhapsodic quality to the tone, almost Mahlerian; but, later, when suspicion troubled her tranquillity, an urgency entered the strongly moulded arioso. She used the text brilliantly in her Act 2 aria, ‘Scherza infida’, communicating the bitterness, grief and devastation which spring from the imagined betrayal of her beloved Ginevra; lutenist William Carter wonderfully underscored Ariodante’s despair at the close. Having demonstrated incredible stamina in this long aria, Coote flew through the wide-ranging - literally and in terms of expressive breadth - and astoundingly virtuosic ‘Dopo notte’ in Act 3. She doesn’t make it look ‘easy’ - indeed, she sings with her whole body and almost deliberately seems to strive to convey the visceral intensity by making us notice the vocal and physical demands, further deepening our awe. Coote may have paired her stylish trousers with open-toed stilettos but, despite the flowing blond mane and the sensuousness of her mezzo, there was a convincing, and paradoxical, ‘masculinity’ about her anger. Or, perhaps it was just that gender seemed irrelevant in the face of such consuming despair and ecstasy.

Alice Coote.jpgAlice Coote as Ariodante. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Coote’s stunning vocalism held us transfixed but she was out-strutted by Sonia Prina’s dastardly Polinesso. Prina’s Iago-like persuasiveness and prowling were utterly compelling. Visually, the spikes, killer heels, tattoos and lace trousers over shorts were arresting, but the transgender attire was also entirely at one with the dramatic integrity and naturalness which Prina brought to the role. As she strode and slunk across the Barbican stage, she drew the eye, dominating the drama just as the scheming Polinesso coercively manipulates the naïve, Dalinda, toying with her affections so that she will carry out his ruse to make Ariodante believe that Ginevra is faithless.

Prina seemed less concerned with the actual sound produced than with the effect it could and would have - on Dalinda and the audience, equally. Some of the coloratura was less than clean and at the top there was an occasional harsh edge, but this mattered little, so thoughtful and dramatic was the phrasing - the rubato, the ornamentation, the dynamic variety. Prina allies rhetorical power with dramatic flexibility. Entirely off-score throughout the evening, she encouraged and supported her fellow cast members generously.

Christine Karg.jpgChristine Karg as Ginevra. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Christine Karg’s Ginevra was a cooler portrait of tender love and loyalty. In fact, despite her silky scarlet dress which stood out so strikingly amid the prevailing black, I felt Karg’s ‘ice maiden’ Ginevra would have benefited from greater musical contrasts. But technically she was flawless. Act 1’s ‘Vezze, lusinghe’ was poised and eloquent; Karg controlled the line expertly and her soprano had well-defined colour and a strong core. Ginevra’s quiet introspection was an asset, too, in ‘Il mio crudel martoro’; condemned as a whore by her father, the King of Scotland, Ginevra’s inner despair was palpable, immune to Dalinda’s consolatory solace. Karg may not have tapped the full emotional range that Handel offers, but this was a touching performance. And, her duets with Coote were affecting for the way that vocally and dramatically they seemed to draw the best from each other.

Mary Bevan, standing in at short notice for the indisposed Joélle Harvey, held her own impressively alongside the more experienced singers. Confident, characterful and with a nice range of colour, Bevan was a surprisingly spirited Dalinda. Her soprano was powerful in ‘Il primo ardor’, in which Dalinda deflects the smitten Lurcanio’s advances. Exulting in the reward promised her by Polinesso, at the bottom her voice acquired a mezzo-ish weight in ‘Se tanto piace al cor’. ‘Neghittosi or voi che fate?’ was a moving expression of regret and, reunited, Dalinda and David Portillo’s Lurcanio sang a beautiful final duet which was one of the highlights of the evening.

David Portillo.jpgDavid Portillo as Lurcanio. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Portillo had already impressed in Act 2’s revenge aria, ‘Il tuo sangue’, in which the tenor’s vocal athleticism served him well in passages of florid anger, where Carter again provided strongly accented support. Prior to that we had enjoyed Lurcanio’s warm profession of love, ‘Del mio sol vezzosi rai’, and admired Portillo’s lovely clean, even gentleness.

Matthew Brook played the King of Scotland as benign, cultivated patriarch, whose calm civility hides a deeper emotionalism which is distressingly released when he hears of his daughter’s supposed dishonour. A little more heft might have enhanced the regality, but the King’s disbelief was totally credibly and the pathos of his grief heart-rending. Bradley Smith sang the small, predominantly recitative, role of Odoardo with a sure sense of his character’s function in the drama.

English Concert.jpgAlice Coote, Harry Bicket, Christine Karg, Sonia Prina, Mary Bevan, David Portillo, Matthew Brook, Bradley Smith and The English Concert. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Bicket directed the small forces of The English Concert with economy and precision: the barest, swiftest flick of the wrist was all that was needed to bring about a change of colour or to usher a detail to the fore. The instrumental sound was fairly light, though capable of poignancy as well as brightness; it provided the singers with an airy support, and space to project.

This was a ‘concert performance’ but many of the cast dispensed with scores and stands, and the dramatic interaction was sustained and animated. Shakespeare’s tale of jealous delusion ends in tragedy, but in Handel’s opera covetousness and resentment are defeated by love. And, the performance was a veritable triumph.

Harry Bicket and the English Concert return to the Barbican Hall in March 2018 to perform Handel’s Rinaldo, with Iestyn Davies in the title role.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Ariodante (concert performance)
The English Concert: Harry Bicket, conductor

Ariodante - Alice Coote, Ginevra - Christiane Karg, Dalinda - Mary Bevan, Polinesso - Sonia Prina, Lurcanio - David Portillo, King of Scotland - Matthew Brook, Odoardo - Bradley Smith.

Barbican Hall, London; Tuesday 16th May 2017.

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