BWW Review: Joyce DiDonato and Harry Bicket's English Concert Handle Handel's ARIODANTE Quite Nicely at Carnegie Hall

BWW Review: Joyce DiDonato and Harry Bicket's English Concert Handle Handel's ARIODANTE Quite Nicely at Carnegie Hall

BWW Review: Joyce DiDonato and Harry Bicket's English Concert Handle Handel's ARIODANTE Quite Nicely at Carnegie Hall

Harry Bicket and the English Concert returned for its just-about-annual Handel-fest at Carnegie Hall with a concert performance of the well-loved ARIODANTE by Handel, starring the even better-loved (certainly in these parts) mezzo Joyce DiDonato. The result was some awfully fine singing--particularly from DiDonato in excellent dramatic form--although the pretty disastrous casting of one of the principals (at least from my point of view) brought the production down from the lofty heights it could have attained.

ARIODANTE is one of the last three great operas by the composer (the others are ALCINA and ORLANDO) , written for the King's Theatre in London and premiering in 1735. It's taken from a different section of the same source as ORLANDO--the epic poem "Orlando Furioso" by Ariosto--and set in Scotland, although there wasn't a Tartan to be seen in this concert version.

The knight Ariodante (DiDonato in pants) and Ginevra, princess of Scotland (soprano Christiane Karg), are in love, and her father is about to name him successor to the throne when the Duke of Albany (Polinesso, another trousers role, contralto Sonia Prina) hatches a plot: to sully the princess's reputation, have her abandoned by Ariodante and get the kingdom for himself.

The score is not as flashy as some of Handel's other best known works, but it's nonetheless filled with great music--though it took a while in Act I for most of the singers to warm up. Karg, for example, sounded strident during "Vezzi, lusinghe, e brio" early in the opera, as she prepared herself to meet Ariodante, but was much improved by the time of her duet with DiDonato, "Prendi, Prendi, da questo mano." By the time she got to Act III's "Io ti bacio," she sounded wonderful.

The character of Ariodante (and mezzo DiDonato) is sort of a hidden weapon in the piece. He doesn't make his appearance until the fifth scene and his first really gorgeous aria didn't appear until well into the second act, though it was well worth waiting for. (The opera runs almost four hours.) DiDonato was sensational in "Scherza infida," after Polinesso has defamed Ginevra's chastity, and the knight is getting ready to throw himself into the sea in despair. (He does, but survives.) Her singing was grand from there: Near the end of the opera, she blew the roof off with "Dopo notte," filled with roulades and leaps and interesting rhythms, as everything ends well, including the death of the miserable ne'er-do-well, Pollinesso.

If only this character had been killed off earlier! Then we wouldn't have had to sit through the painful performance of contralto Prina, who showed off a gravelly voice and rolled her eyes as if she were Theda Bara in some silent movie. Unless she was under the weather and was without a cover, I couldn't figure out how she ended up in this performance. (What was worse, the audience seemed to eat up every bit of what I would call "scenery chewing," if there had been scenery.)

On the plus side, one of the pleasures of the afternoon was re-discovering tenor David Portillo, in a role where he shined, as Lurcanio, Ariodante's brother, who is gaga for Ginevra's maid, Dalinda (who's unwittingly part of Polinesso's conspiracy; she's too interested in Polinesso to understand what's going on). Portillo--who was Jaquino in this season's misbegotten FIDELIO at the Met--shined here at every opportunity, particularly in his fiery coloratura aria, "Il tuo sangue," as he demanded that the King punish Ginevra's unfounded "unchastity" (yes, that's what the Carnegie Hall program called it).

As Dalinda, soprano Mary Bevan's singing grew increasingly fine as the opera went on, though I can't imagine who could have made her dimwitted character more believable. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook did well as the King, particularly in his thoughtful interpretation of "Al sen ti stringo" in Act III, as he tells his daughter that, while he personally forgives her, he can't stay her punishment. Rounding out the cast nicely was tenor Tyson Miller as Odoardo, the King's confidante.

Bicket, who conducted from the harpsichord, led a fine performance, except for some peculiar problems with the horns in the first act. I wouldn't exactly say the performance "flew"--at almost four hours, that's a lot of flying--but he and his musicians gave Handel the thoughtful, majestic treatment that he deserves.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.