Opéra National de Paris 2022-23 Review: Ariodante

Robert Carsen’s Staging Rises Up Despite Mixed Bag Cast

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo by Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris)

It has been a rocky start to Paris Opera’s production of “Ariodante.” Its premiere faced a strike of the backstage staff, and the second performance was canceled due to political manifestations. Therefore, the press could only see the show weeks after its opening.

Händel’s opera, however, is very much worth the wait.

One of the most performed titles of its composers operatic repertoire, “Ariodante” (after a segment of Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”) deals with an intricate web of feelings governed by love, desire, and fidelity. The drama is particularly human, and the libretto—by an unknown writer—dissolves any common sentimentality. The essential words are precise, all dramatic action is unveiled with just few words.

Robert Carsen Sets the Scene

Robert Carsen’s viridescent scenarios set the drama within a fictional royal family of modern-day Scotland. The Canadian stage director uses the modern exposure of royal lives—referring specifically to the “Meghanexit” drama of 2020—to question how much privacy and intimacy can or should be granted to those whose lives and affections are both their own and public—since the royals are also the State.

The scenography has some beautiful moments. Carsen, who also designed the lighting, is adept at bringing together the modern and the traditional in the mise-en-scene. Nicolas Paul’s choreography, though too earth-bound and a bit off-beat, enhances the drama by being on the border between diegetic dancing and surreal hallucination.

However, I must say that Carsen’s sense of humor can sometimes be too kitsch. In the end, when he pornographically explains his republican take on monarchy, we are forced to see wax figures of the British royals that quite likely would not make the cut for Madame Tussaud’s museum in Paris, Texas. Such humoresque interventions do trivialize all the great and elevated sentiment in “Ariodante”—but, maybe, in non-coronation times, my republican soul would find them just somewhat funny.

I must say: even a mundane performance of “Ariodante” is extremely enjoyable. The music is so good that time flies. Nearly every role has more than one aria, giving the performers much room to build a relationship between them and the public. Overall, I would say that the singers were better able to convey the tragic atmosphere than the happy moments of the opera.  That said, except for Dumaux, the cast  did not seem to have warmed up so well, which made the first act inferior to the two succeeding acts.

Messy Casting

The big star of the night, Emily D’Angelo in the title-role, was greeted with an enthusiastic reception by Palais Garnier’s audience. The Canadian mezzo has a somewhat androgynous voice that fits the en travesti repertoire quite well. If such androgyny was alluded to by her Siebel in Gounoud’s “Faust” last season, her Ariodante makes it clear. Her voice has a quick vibrato and a boyish tone that gives the character a personality that sometimes resembles an adolescent Wertherian gamin lost in the wrong part of the eighteenth century.

Although I have much sympathy for D’Angelo’s work, especially after her spectacular run in Operalia—where she won every possible prize—, her Ariodante was somewhat lacking. Scenically, D’Angelo, though very expressive, is not the most natural of actors, which was particularly noticeable in a staging in which most singers excelled.

Her Italian enunciation, in spite of her surname, was hard to understand at a few moments. D’Angelo sacrifices the pronouncing of occlusive consonants for the sake of her legato, which makes some words unintelligible (“cieca,” “dopo,” to name a few). Instrument-wise, her voice can be heard over Palais Garnier’s walls, but timidly, fading Ariodante’s heroic tonus. That was particularly true in her final aria, “Dopo notte, atra e funesta”; Ariodante’s recapitulation of the opera’s climax lacked some of the energy and sense of larger-than-life joyfulness expressed by Händel’s mesmerizing coloratura. D’Angelo voice, however, shines particularly well in the upper register, and her lower register is very uniform and generous towards the audience.

In her aria “Scherza infida,” D’Angelo wisely gained much expression and a sense of dolor when interacting with lighter tones of her voice in pianissimi, emphasizing the youthfulness and greenness of Ariodante. To me, it was her best moment of the night.

Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchnysnka gave us a very promising Ginevra. I am still impressed by her incursions into the mid-range; her pure voice delivering the text reminded me of singers like Maria Bayo and even Patricia Petibon. Her Ginevra preserves a sense of virtue barren of any naïveté. She is politically savvy, knowing quite well how, in the face of her unfair situation, to posture politically (“Io ti bacio, o mano augusta”). Her “Il mio crudel martoro” was lyrical and sorrowful, representing clearest instance of the haunting tragical spectral aspect of “Ariodante” that never fully wins out over its happy ending.

Probably the singer who enjoyed himself the most on stage was French countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Polinesso, Duke of Albany. His character is wicked; however, Dumaux makes him a sympathetic trickster: how can one not love it when he sings “Se l’inganno sortisce felice, io detesto per sempre virtù.”  (“If deceiving ends well, I will forever hate virtue”)?  In great vocal shape, the countertenor has gained a metallic tonality in his voice—which is particularly evident in his coloratura sections. He is remarkably good at embracing the inequalities of his registers, especially in the lower edge of his voice. All his variations are filled with panache and a good sense of phrasing that only augments the meaning of the words.

Dalinda, the disloyal maid of chamber of Ginevra, was sung by the competent Serbian soprano Tamara Banješević. The soprano has a beautiful voice, and her character quite likely passes through the biggest dramatical change in the opera; however, she never managed to enunciate her Italian text properly, and to give to her character a more coherent musical personality. While in her “Neghittosi or voi che fate?” her chiaroscuro was there with dramatical changes between piano and forte, her duo with Lurcanio (“Dite spera, e son contento”) sounded more like a settling than an enthusiastic realization that “a new fire ignites in [her] heart” (“novo ardor mi accende il sen”).

Eric Ferring sang Lurcanio with a more embodied tenor tone then we are used to hearing in the lighter repertoire. It was rather satisfying to hear good phrasing and a voice uniform voice in all registers. His high notes sound natural and free; his tone is neither boyish or juvenile.

The American tenor, nevertheless, had to fight against two problems. On the pit, Harry Bicket was particularly slow when conducting Lurcanio’s arias, taking away some of the character’s vividness. But even more deleterious was Prince Harry’s red hair wig—and beard—that not only was very distracting, but which also made one wonder whether we might be better off spared reminders (in opera, and everywhere else) of Harry’s hairstyle altogether.

Finally, Matthew Brook took on the Scottish King with great enunciation of the text. However, he has none of the lower notes required by the score—clearly a case of a good singer who was improperly cast. The singer seems to have great sense of phrasing; the problem is that the King’s vocal line is often built on showcasing a generous voice that can wander around all registers with eloquence and royalty.

Enrico Casari was a pleasant surprise in the small role of Odoardo.

The English Concert, conducted by Harry Bicket, has a beautiful tone, even though the tempi were, to my taste, a bit too austere and slow. Bicket is very competent in managing the relationship between the staging and the music. In a few moments, the orchestra even managed to properly change their affect after a great aria, as if the singing transformed how the instruments would see the music. The continuo was more than ideal; in Ginevra’s entrance to the Royal chambers, before she is told that Ariodante is dead, the improvisations were so beautiful that I would love to hear them again.

As I said before, Händel’s “Ariodante” is such a great opera that even with my reservations about the performance, I would see it more than once, especially with Carsen’s staging, which is well-suited to the music. Despite the uneveness of the overall musical performance, my love for Händel’s music and the beauty of the staging makes me place this “Ariodante” as one of the highlights of the season at Paris Opera.


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