ENO @ Coliseum, London, 6, 9, 12, 14, 20, 22, 27 March 2002
Ariodante is no Serse or Giulio Cesare or Alcina. Handel aficionados attend with their scores not just to come over precious but rather to follow the (admittedly beautiful) tunes recycled from various other mix-and-match Handel operas - he wrote 46 of them, nearly all with plots of Byzantine complexity.
If you bring a pocket torch at least you can re-read the synopsis during the repeat of each da capo aria.
There are few or no laughs in opera seria - a point which should be of interest to modern producers, who try to divert the audience with quirkiness or schoolboy jokes.
This rarely works (though the ENO Serse (Xerxes) is a notable exception). Nothing happens in Handel - a singer enters during the introduction to his (or her) aria, takes a stance and sings the thing (at least twice), and then exits.
There is the occasional recitative to fill in the blanks in the story. There were moments when one thought that Director David Alden was parodying the Baroque, but then gradually the realisation dawned that he hadn't got a clue what the Baroque was all about - apart, perhaps, from the costumes of some of the kinkier characters.
Post-modernism easily recommends itself for this kind of static and primitive opera - it affords the producer an opportunity to divert the audience during the longueurs. However, Post-modernism is fundamentally meretricious, and producers must therefore take care to establish integrity and believability. This imperative was ignored in ENO's Ariodante. 'Opera' means 'the works' - what we got was trivia and distracting detail, with no guiding idea. Examples of this are legion.
Why does a producer get a lady in a trouser role clambering up onto a table (rather silly thing to do in the first place, if you think about it) to sing a few notes of her repeat if at the end she is unable to jump down like the hero she is supposed to be but instead has to sit down and slither off the side? In fact there was a good deal of unnecessary slithering - presumably this was to enhance the audience's understanding of the action - well, that didn't work, did it? - or simply to divert. Divert from what? When this was going on I looked around to see how many in the audience were diverted; sadly, a Mugabe majority were dozing. Most of these production ploys didn't make any sense.
Some late Baroque works (musical and otherwise) particularly emphasised facial expression as a means of revealing true emotion. Forget that! - we got Laurel and Hardy types. The Baroque before Handel's time identified a single focal point and developed it. In a single work there would have been one over-riding emphasis, and everything else would have been subordinated to it.
What we got was Sally Burgess cast as a cross between Casanova and the Marquis de Sade. But neither identification is appropriate. It doesn't fit with the text or the music. The Post-modern window/proscenium at the back of the stage was an interesting feature (the sets and lighting were ravishing), but - ultimately - we have to ask the question 'Why is it there?' - and, more importantly, 'What is it for?' Because, Post-modernism fails completely if it is an idiom only of disintegration.
The orchestra, under Harry Christophers, did full justice to the music - though one remembers with much greater fondness the playing under his baton in L'Incoronazione di Poppea. The singing was generally undistinguished and diction poor - but what is a professional to do when imprisoned in an impossible situation? Sarah Connelly in the aforementioned (and eponymous) trouser role was one exception, singing with dignity and a beautiful tone; Eric Owns as the King of Scotland, Finnur Bjarnason as Oduardo, and Mary Nelson as Dalinda also did their best in trying circumstances.
One hopes that great trouper Sally Burgess, who has been dipping her toe in so many different types of music recently, will realise that Handel is perhaps a bridge too far. Interpreting the music as if it was Bizet simply doesn't work.