Many Handelians, I imagine, will already have a recording of Ariodante, either the original LPs or the CD set issued at the end of 1994 of the Leppard performance of 1980 with Dame Janet Baker in the title-role. Baker is in superb voice, and for her commanding singing alone the set is more than worth having; but the new version under Nicholas McGegan certainly surpasses it in almost every other way. This recording, made with the cast from the Gottingen Festival last year (largely American singers who have collaborated with McGegan in his Californian performances), seems to me at least the equal of the best he has done before. The quality of the music is of course a factor: Ariodante is one of the richest of the Handel operas. It begins with a flood of fine numbers, just like Giulio Cesare, mostly love music for the betrothed pair, Ariodante and the Scottish princess Ginevra – she is introduced in a wonderfully carefree aria, he in a gentle, exquisite slow arietta; then they have a very individual and beautiful love duet, and each goes on to a more jubilant aria. But the plot thickens and the music darkens with Polinesso’s machinations, designed to impugn her fidelity: so that Act 2 contains music of vengeance and grief (above all the magnificent “Scherza infida!” for Ariodante, a G minor aria with muted upper and pizzicato lower strings, and soft bassoons), while the final act shows all the characters in extremis, until the plot is uncovered and equilibrium is restored. This is also one of Handel’s few operas with extensive ballet; each act includes some splendid and ingeniously tuneful dance music.
McGegan directs in his usual spirited style. There is a real theatrical sense to his conducting: this is one of those opera sets where, after the overture, you find your spine tingling in expectation of the drama, which I suppose isn’t surprising for a performance that originated in the theatre, though it doesn’t always happen. At any rate, his tempos are wide-ranging – quicker ones move pretty smartly, but the slower ones are given ample time for the import of the music to make itself felt. He does not shirk the tragic grandeur that has a place in this score: listen for example to the opening music of Act 3. The dances are done with springy rhythms and often with considerable vigour. The recitatives are sung at a good pace but with full dramatic weight. I still don’t quite like some of the dapper staccatos and unshaped cadences, but they don’t offend; nor, on the whole, does the singers’ ornamentation on those occasions when it goes beyond the ornamental and departs too radically from the lines of the music. The orchestra, modest in size (the strings are only 220.127.116.11.2: I should have preferred more violins), are efficient and precise.
Lorraine Hunt’s soprano seems warm and full for a castrato part (though I can’t pretend to know what the authentic sound should be), but her line is always well-defined and she has a delightfully musical voice which she uses gracefully and expressively. Her virtuoso A major aria in Act 1 is masterly in style and control and so are the rapid semiquaver runs in the aria that opens Act 2. And there is great intensity in her singing of the two minor key arias that begin the final act. “Scherza infida” seems curiously balanced, the voice excessively forward or the orchestra subdued. As Ginevra, Juliana Gondek, even with a touch more vibrato than might be ideal, sings with a natural musicianship – to be heard in her phrasing and her way of shaping the music – and a wide range of expression: best of all perhaps in the virtuoso aria in Act 1 and the magnificent tragic scene at the end of Act 2, though the poignant D minor farewell to her father in Act 3 is deeply touching too. Lisa Saffer provides a charming and spirited Dalinda and Nicolas Cavallier a King with suitable warmth and depth of tone. Rufus Muller’s voice is a shade baritonal for the tenor role of Lurcanio and his Italian sounds a little awkward but he sings capably and sympathetically. The role of Polinesso, intended for a contralto rather than a castrato, is projected by Jennifer Lane with style and some passion, the latter particularly in the final aria where he looks forward to his triumph. A fine set, which I recommend very warmly.'