Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;
playing Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
February 24 and 27
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It’s 500 years since the publication of the epic poem Orlando Furioso by the Italian writer Ludovico Ariosto. It is also almost three centuries since the premiere (in 1735) of Ariodante, the second in Handel’s operatic trilogy based on the poem.
One can only wonder what the poet and the composer would have made of this, Scottish Opera’s decidedly 21st-century take on this story of sexual morality and vicious deceit. At first, director Harry Fehr’s production seems to be located in a society entirely dominated by the unforgiving laws of the Old Testament.
The brief opening scene shows two men being hanged, followed by a curtain adorned with a text from Deuteronomy that decrees the death penalty for sexual infidels.
However, when the curtain rises, we find ourselves in a Scotland, not of violent Calvinist retribution, but of a very modern wedding. In a sparkling, glass-walled dining room, amidst the paraphernalia of present-day catering, preparations are being made for the nuptials of Princess Ginevra and her bride, the eponymous soldier Ariodante.
The titular hero remains male in the libretto, but is played by the excellent Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup. Who can doubt that Fehr is nodding towards the historic legalisation of same-sex marriage by the Holyrood Parliament two years ago this very month?
All of which adds a darker edge to the villainy of the low-life Polinesso, played with delicious gusto by the extraordinary Catalan counter-tenor Xavier Sabata. When he tricks Ariodante into thinking Ginevra has been unfaithful (with none other than Polinesso himself), it becomes an act of homophobia as well as of jealousy.
This production is balanced fascinatingly between Biblical prohibitions and the gentler sexual politics of modern day Scotland. It is also blessed with superb performances and, of course, a gorgeously rich score by one of the greatest Baroque composers.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 21, 2016
© Mark Brown