The Gramophone Choice: Handel's Ariodante

Julian Halse Thu 8th January 2015

Recommended recordings of Handel's opera

The Gramophone Choice

Joyce DiDonato (mez) Ariodante Karina Gauvin (sop) Ginevra Sabina Puértolas (sop) Dalinda Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contr) Polinesso Topi Lehtipuu (ten) Lurcanio Matthew Brook (bass-bar) King of Scotland Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (ten) Odoardo Il Complesso Barocco / Alan Curtis 

Virgin Classics 070844-2 (3h 13’ · DDD · S/T/t) Buy from Amazon

Ariodante is an excellent starting-point for anyone new to Handelian opera. The plot is strong and reasonably credible. The drama moves swiftly, too, Handel sometimes confounding one’s expectations: Ginevra is so incensed by Polinesso’s advances that her aria kicks off with no instrumental introduction, while the da capo reprise of the first duet for Ginevra and Ariodante is charmingly interrupted by the King.

Handel revived the opera in 1736, with many changes. This recording is of the version as first staged, with a couple of exceptions: the King’s aria in Act 2 is replaced by a siciliano; the dances at the end of the same act are dropped in favour of the sequence later transferred to Alcina; and the Gavotte in Act 3, already heard in the Overture, gives way to a Rondeau. All these pieces were discarded before the premiere.

Ariodante is sung by the wonderful Joyce DiDonato. ‘Con l’ali di costanza’ is taken at quite a lick: fair enough, as the reference is to Cupid’s wings. In ‘Scherza infida’, with its mournful bassoon, DiDonato has the full measure of ­Ariodante’s despair. Only ‘Dopo notte’ fails to impress fully, partly because the violins’ attack on the first note is rather weedy and partly because the reprise is more rewritten than embellished.

There are no weaknesses in the rest of the cast. Alan Curtis directs with his customary stylishness and, in the ‘Ballo di ninfe…’, a nice touch of rustic phrasing. The harpsichord could be more prominent but otherwise the balance is good.

 

Additional Recommendation

Anne Sofie von Otter (mez) Ariodante Lynne Dawson (sop) Ginevra Veronica Cangemi (sop) Dalinda Ewa Podles (mez) Polinesso Richard Croft (ten) Lurcanio Denis Sedov (bass) King of Scotland Luc Coadou (ten) Odoardo Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre; Les Musiciens du Louvre / Marc Minkowski

Archiv 457 271-2AH3 (178' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon

Lynne Dawson is the star of this show. In Act 2, where Ginevra finds herself ­inexplicably rejected and condemned by everyone, Dawson brings real depth of tone and feeling to her E minor lament, ‘Il mio crudel martoro’; in the final act she shines in the desolate miniature ‘Io ti bacio’ and brings much fire to the outburst ‘Sì, morro’. But she never transgresses the canons of Baroque style. Von Otter, too, has much ­marvellous music – the aria ‘Scherza infida’ is one of Handel’s greatest expressions of grief – and she sings it beautifully, but she isn’t really at one with his idiom and seems to lack a natural feeling for the amplitude of Handel’s lines. 

Yet there’s much to enjoy here too: the beauty of the actual sound, the immaculate control, the many telling and musicianly touches of phrasing. But the noble, climactic triumphant aria ‘Dopo notte’ doesn’t have quite the effect it should. For that, however, Minkowski is partly to blame. Carried away, it almost seems, by the passion of the music, he’s often inclined to go at it baldheaded, too fast and with a ferocity of accent that seems foreign to the style and dangerously close to ugly. 

Veronica Cangemi makes a charming Dalinda, light, spirited and duly agile, with some gently pathetic expression in the delightful siciliana song early in Act 2. Ewa Podles brings her large, resonant voice to Polinesso’s music; and the King of Scotland’s fatherly music is done with due fullness and warmth by Denis Sedov, who covers the two-octave range with comfort and resonance. 

Despite the driven quality of Minkowski’s performance, especially in the high dramatic music of the latter part of the opera, the sheer passion of this set does give it claims to be considered very seriously. 

 

DVD Recommendation

Ann Murray (mez) Ariodante Joan Rodgers (sop) Ginevra Lesley Garrett (sop) Dalinda Christopher Robson (counterten) Polinesso Paul Nilon (ten) Lurcanio Gwynne Howell (bass) King of Scotland Mark Le Brocq (ten) Odoardo English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Ivor Bolton 

Stage director David Alden 

Video director Kriss Rusmanis

Arthaus Musik DVD 100 064 (178' · 16:9 · PCM stereo · 2, 3, 5). Recorded live 1996. Buy from Amazon

David Alden’s staging of Ariodante was generally praised when it was first staged by WNO, a joint venture with ENO. This DVD is a recording of the much-admired revival at the ENO in 1996. Its appearance confirms the extraordinary perspicacity of Alden’s production, which explains, from an almost Freudian viewpoint, the loves, hates, fears and fantasies of the principal characters so unerringly and deeply delineated in Handel’s masterly score, in which aria after aria exposes new layers of emotional thrust and instability. Ann Murray gives a committed performance as the unhinged Ariodante and displays a physical and vocal virtuosity only occasionally vitiated by a harsh tone. The great arias ‘Scherza infida’ and ‘Dopo notte’ are just the climactic moments they should be. Joan Rodgers as Ginevra is hardly less impressive in her portrayal of the myriad feelings suggested by Handel and Alden.

Christopher Robson, as the villain Polinesso, is the very incarnation of evil lasciviousness, for which his edgy countertenor isn’t inappropriate. Lesley Garrett gives Dalinda just the right touch of vulnerability as she submits to Polinesso’s wiles while being sexually captivated by him. Gwynne Howell is the upright King to the life. Ivor Bolton conducts a vital, well-played account of the score with modern strings sounding very much like their period counterparts. Almost three hours of gripping music-drama pass in a trice, helped by the unbroken sequence of DVD. The sound is commendable, the picture superb.

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