THEATRE ROYAL, GLASGOW
Review by Mark Brown
Imagine a modern day Scotland in which a King presides over a regime that simultaneously promotes fidelity on pain of death, yet permits gay marriage. So it is in Scottish Opera’s new production of Handel’s Ariodante.
The opera (which premiered in 1735) is the second in Handel’s trilogy inspired by Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. The poem was first published in 1516, so director Harry Fehr can justifiably claim his staging as a 500th-anniversary production.
Which is not to say that he has remained faithful to either Ariosto or Handel. At the outset, two poor wretches swing from the gallows, followed by a curtain emblazoned with texts from Deuteronomy that denounce infidelity as a capital crime.
Within moments of this distinctly 16th-century scene, however, we find ourselves in a very 21st-century building, all glass and steel, where preparations are being made for the nuptials of Princess Ginevra and her beloved soldier Ariodante. The latter, although not feminised in the libretto, is performed by Caitlin Hulcup.
A pointed reference to the laws of Scotland combines significantly with Hulcup’s playing of the title role. It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the production is nodding to the legalisation of same-sex marriage by the Scottish Parliament two years ago.
The result of this conceit is that the King (Neal Davies on fine form) becomes an intriguingly conflicted character, part John Knox (the austere leader of Scotland’s Calvinist Reformation), part Nicola Sturgeon (Scotland’s current, notably liberal, First Minister). In blessing a same-sex union, the ruler unwittingly touches off a vicious cycle of deception and violence.
At the heart of that cycle is Ariodante’s love rival, Polinesso. In the expert hands of Catalan counter-tenor Xavier Sabata, this evil schemer becomes a cross between cartoon cad Dick Dastardly and Shakespeare’s loathsome villain Iago.
Sabata is so experienced in playing opera’s anti-heroes that he has recorded a solo album of demonic arias entitled Bad Guys. Unsurprisingly, then, he plays Polinesso with an effervescent wickedness that almost steals the show.
There are fine performances throughout, however; not least Hulcup’s anguished Ariodante, Sarah Tynan’s distraught-yet-indignant Ginevra and Ed Lyon as Ariodante’s outraged brother Lurcanio. Like Fehr’s modern relocation of the story and the gorgeous playing of conductor Nicholas Kraemer’s orchestra, their singing sits beautifully alongside the sumptuousness of Handel’s score.
At Theatre Royal, Glasgow February 18 and 20, then Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, February 24 and 27. For details, visit: scottishopera.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 17, 2016
© Mark Brown