It’s the season of illness and the Barbican has had more than its fair share of sudden cancellations in recent weeks.
The latest was Angelika Kirchschlager, struck down by laryngitis just one day before this concert performance of Handel’s opera.
Rescue came in the fair shape of young Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup, the third replacement in this cast alone (Sandrine Piau was an earlier casualty).
To non-admirers of David Alden’s fussy but much-loved production of Ariodante at English National Opera (revived at the Coliseum last year) a concert version is a preferable option. Stripped of the clutter of extraneous staging, the opera can breathe and the storytelling work at a simple level. Not that plots, hard to follow and easily forgettable, are a strength of Handel’s operas.
What you do get is a stream of glorious tunes and plenty of opportunities for virtuoso singing. Caitlin Hulcup began tentatively but grew in confidence throughout the evening. The Act Two aria “Scherza infida” is inevitably a highlight of any performance of the opera and by then, halfway through, she had found a richness and considerable vocal beauty. Although there was still some physical and emotional restraint, she held her own magnificently amongst a cast most of whom have been playing their roles in a fully-staged production in Paris.
Someone we know has no trouble committing to the right role (based on her Cleopatra in Glyndebourne’s Giulio Cesare) is Danielle de Niese but she didn’t seem quite comfortable with the innocent put-upon Ginevra. She was full of dramatic intensity but not always even vocally.
Vivica Genaux lacked menace as the villain Polinesso, with some unattractive wobbling in the lower register, and you had to look to the secondary roles for the best performances of the evening. Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu, sounding like a young Ian Bostridge and similarly gangly, was mighty impressive as Lurcanio. Clearly a fine actor and with a good deal more animation than the English singer, he’s a star in the making. As his love interest, the duped Dalinda, Jal Azzaretti sang sweetly and affectingly all evening. The couple’s final bitter-sweet duet, reconciliation tainted with regret, was wonderfully touching.
Christophe Rousset, directing from the keyboard, led a refined performance from Les Talens Lyriques. With as long an evening as this (well over four hours), it might have been better to cut the ballets at the end of acts, as Handel himself did. Certainly, that at the end of Act Two, is an unnecessary coda to Ginevra’s haunting aria.
During these sections, the principals made up a mini-chorus (presumably the originals had been left in Paris, as too expensive to tour for so little participation). Unaccustomed to singing these parts, they stood in a line, shuffled, giggled and buried their noses in the score. After all the sophisticated performance that had preceded it, there was something quite nave and charming about this child-like behaviour from a fine group of professionals.