International Handel Festival Göttingen 2021 Review: Ariodante
Emily Fons & Marie Lys Produce Standout PerformancesBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Theodore da Silva)
Just behind Göttingen train station is the Lokhalle, a large industrial building built between 1917 and 1920, which until 1976 was used for repairing locomotives, when it was closed and sold for development. Fortunately, it was not demolished along with the other buildings on the site. Instead, it was converted into an events center which, among other things, includes three large halls. Its main hall, an enormous space with a seating capacity of 4,000, was chosen as the venue for Göttingen’s International Handel Festival’s performance of “Ariodante.” Its pleasing acoustic, superb sight lines, and oceans of legroom made it an ideal venue for the concert performance.
The stage was well organized, with Laurence Cummings conducting from the harpsichord in the center surrounded by the orchestra, with choir stationed on rows behind it. The front of the stage was for the soloists when singing. When not performing they sat at the sides, men to the right, women to the left. However, whereas the female singers sat attentively facing the audience in a neat row, patiently waiting for their musical cue to step forward, the male singers sat in a group at right angles to each other, some of whom looked as if they were in a tax office waiting room, bored and slovenly. It was quite shocking to see. Why not have them seated behind a dark curtain if sitting for long periods was going to be too difficult?
With a concert performance, greater weight falls upon the singers to carry the narrative, for if the audience is to grasp the dramatic context with all its nuances then it is their voices that will have to provide it. There is no scenery or special effects and the possibility for physical expression is limited. Vocal beauty is rarely enough on its own, the singers must incorporate dramatic expressivity into their performance if they wish to convince. For this performance of “Ariodante,” all three female singers were excellent in this respect, producing high quality, dramatically strong performances.
Singing Excellence From The Female Singers
Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons led the way in the title role of Ariodante with an iridescent performance in which the radiant beauty of her voice combined seamlessly with the depth of expression she injected into her singing. She set out her stall in her first aria “Qui d’amore nel suo linguaggio,” a reflection on love using pastoral imagery, with an emotionally well-defined rendition in which her tonal beauty, gentle coloratura, and attractive phrasing impressed. In the virtuoso aria “Con l’ali di constanza,” she showed off her vocal agility with a series of spectacular speedy complex coloratura displays, yet all done with a smile on the face, in which Ariodante’s joy could be heard in her voice. She was equally successful in expressing her anger and anxiety as in the aria “Tu preparati amore e morire,” or relief and optimism in the aria “Dopo notte, atra e funesta.” The aria “Scherza, infida” in particular stood out for the pain in which she was able to infuse into the voice. To a light orchestral accompaniment, she crafted poignantly drawn lines of intense suffering, in which her legato, phrasing, and the attention she gave to the text were notable for their degree of precision.
Soprano Marie Lys gave a no less effective performance as Ariodante’s betrothed Ginevra. It is a part that demands a potent emotional response from the singer as she swings between periods of intense joy, deep despair, and defiant anger, and that is exactly what she delivered without ever compromising on vocal beauty. In the aria “Il mio crudel martoro,” Ginevra longs for death as an escape from her suffering. Lys gave a detailed rendition in which she coated her voice with pain and longing, subtly inflecting colorful and emotional accents into the vocal line, in which she also showed off the beauty of her upper register. In a more joyous moment, she sang out strongly and clearly, reveling in her love for Ariodante in the aria “Volate, amore,” her excellent phrasing, fast-moving coloraturas, and vibrant presentation communicating her feelings and delighting the audience. The aria “Orrida agl’occhi miei” finds Ginevra in an angry mood as she rejects Polinesso’s advances. In a feisty presentation, Lys once again indulged in fast-moving coloratura displays and precipitous leaps, but this time with a defiant edge.
There are three duets for the two lovers, in all of which their voices contrasted and complimented beautifully. In “Prendi, prendi da questa mano,” Lys was bright and emotionally more forceful, while Fons was smoother and more elegant, as they playfully engaged as they pledge their love. The final duet “Bramo aver mille vite” allowed them both to indulge in agile vocal displays in which they beautifully sparred and supported each other, and which led nicely into the closing chorus.
Soprano Rachel Redmond could so easily have been overshadowed in the role of Dalinda, but in fact, held her own with a performance of quality. She possesses an attractive, versatile voice with good strength, which she employed with skill to successfully develop her character. She presented her arias in a lively and engaging manner, of which “Neghittosi, or voi che fate?” was certainly the standout, allowing Redmond to rage at her betrayal by Polinesso, and she did not hold back. In an emotionally hot rendition, she unleashed a fabulous complex coloratura display, full of leaps and heavily accented the vocal line, leaving no one in doubt as to her feelings. Yet, her aria “Il primo ardor” was so different. In a confession of love, her voice danced lightly and easily across the melodic line, replete with pleasing ornamentations, light coloraturas, and short trills, successfully capturing the joy of falling in love.
Male Singers Do Not Quite Hit The Mark
The male singers produced inconsistent albeit reasonably good performances, with countertenor Clint van der Linde, in the role of Polinesso, the best of the group, although none were to the same standard as the female singers. Of his four arias, “Dover, giustizia, amor,” in which Polinesso steps forward to defend Ginevra’s honor, was the most successful. Linde embraced the moment with an uplifting, forceful presentation in which his determination to win Ginevra as a means to the throne was clearly rendered, and displaying considerable vocal agility with an energetic coloratura. His opening aria “Coperta la frode” was also given an expressive rendition that captured Polinesso’s cynical nature, and impressed with his appealing timbre and secure technique, while again allowing him to indulge in another entertaining coloratura display. His other two arias were not quite as successful, with both being presented a little too rigid for some tastes. Recitatives were lively and intelligently crafted and brought out his character’s vicious and duplicitous nature.
The bass-baritone Njäl Sparbo cast as the King of Scotland sang well. His arias showed a high degree of technical skill, while his recitatives were neatly crafted and delivered with meaning. His opening aria “Voli colla sua tromba” allowed him to display his ability in embellishing the vocal line, and his voice possessed the necessary weight and authority for him to establish himself in the role of the King. And his aria “invida sorte avara” was rendered with a melancholic lilt, which showed off his attractive lower register to good effect. The problem with his performance, however, was that he never appeared to convincingly engage with his character, he always seemed to be singing his arias without reference to a dramatic context. It was all too laidback, notwithstanding his successful presentation of recitatives.
Tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado was parted as Lurcanio. He has a very pleasing, lyrical voice, but always appeared to sing within himself, and failed to explore the emotional depths and nuances of his character, which was only superficially defined. His aria “Del mio sol vezzosi rai” in which he reflects on his love for Dalinda was elegantly rendered, but emotionally lightweight, while his aria “Tu vivi, e punito” in which he attempts to stop Ariodante killing himself was again beautifully delivered, but the passion was too restrained, nothing sparkled. Ultimately, there was too little attention given to dramatic development.
His duet with Dalinda “Dite spera, e son contento” brought two attractive voices together, in which their sympathetic phrasing blended beautifully for what was an elegant and attractive presentation.
Baritone Steffen Kruse played the small role of Odoardo, and produced a solid performance.
Laurence Cummings Signing Off In Style
Laurence Cummings finishes his tenure as artistic director of the International Handel Festival Göttingen this season, rounding off ten years in the post. He will undoubtedly be missed, not least for his performances as music director with the FestspielOrchester Göttingen. He was at the harpsichord for this concert of “Ariodante” and elicited a superb performance from the orchestra, which captured the elegance and vitality of Handel’s score. There was clarity and sharpness about their playing which could not fail to please. He also maintained a wonderful balance, on all levels, not least between the orchestra and the NDR Vokalensemble, which he nicely integrated into the musical fabric.
Overall, it was a wonderful evening, in which orchestra and the female soloists excelled, and if it sounds that the male singers were lacking, it was only by comparison, their contribution was a positive one.