“Ariodante” is an opera seria by George Frideric Handel and first performed in Covent Garden London in 1735 with the support of the Royal Family. The story is set in an undefined and chronologically unplaced Scottish palace and revolves around the story of a King (Neal Davies) who is about to marry his only daughter Princess Ginevra (Sarah Tynan) to the love of her life Ariodante (Caitlin Hulcup).  Of course, this is opera and nothing goes that simply.  After rebuffing the attentions of Polinesso Duke of Albany (Xavier Sabata), Princess Ginevra finds her honour brought into disrepute by a cruel plot by Polinesso who uses the servant girl Dalinda (Jennifer France) to dress up in her mistress’ clothes and admit him to her bedchamber thus convincing poor Ariodante of his soon to be bride’s unfaithfulness.  Having Dalinda hopelessly in love with him makes Polinesso’s task so much simpler to do.  Unknown to Polinesso though, the deception is also witnessed by Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio (Ed Lyon), and events then begin to spiral out of control as the innocent Princess Ginevra is sentenced to death by her father for her perceived actions as the law demands.

A bit of a plot simplification here, but enough to give the idea, I hope, to anyone who has not seen this opera as it was pretty much fell out of public favour for a few hundred years and is only in the past few decades getting a revival.

Much as I like Handel’s music, it is obviously very challenging for any singer and demands an enormous amount of technical skill, particularly as its style is very much of its period with its almost set pieces of vocal skills to be displayed by performers.  That style may be at times slightly at odds with what modern audiences are used to, but to re-create this period, Scottish Opera have brought together an impressive international cast for this production and Sarah Tynan (Soprano) is a great Princess Ginevra and has some classic vocals and drama to perform here which suits her clear toned voice very well.

The role of Ariodante is performed by Mezzo Soprano Caitlin Hulcup,  recreating as far as possible the original male Castrato role for this part.  Head of Music for Scottish Opera Derek Clark has actually re-instated back into this production some of Ariodante’s role that Handel left out and carefully recreated Handel style music for this production.  Both Caitlin and Derek have obviously worked very closely on this to seamlessly fit everything into place here.

Villain of the piece of course is Xavier Sabata as Polinesso and he is obviously having great fun with this part bringing at times an almost Victorian vaudevillian approach to the character.  The role of course demands an enormous display of technical ability from his outstanding counter–tenor voice. 

Probably getting just as important a role time-wise and story-wise here is Jennifer France as the love struck servant girl who gets the inevitable betrayal that we all expected and for a secondary character gets a lot of on-stage time to display that impressive soprano voice of hers

Neal  Davies as the King who must follow his own laws and condemn his own daughter  to death gets a chance to play a King and a father, and some of the music in the later parts here as he struggles with what he has done give him a good opportunity for contrasts in vocal styles.

I’ve always liked Handel’s music, and this is regarded as probably his best opera by many, but the libretto for me is a bit of a problem at times as it comes from a few sources.  I am also not sure exactly what sort of a Scottish Royal Court Handel was imagining here as it feels by the names of the characters and style more European than Scottish and where has he originally set it time wise? – The Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England had already seen James VI of Scotland become James I of England in 1603 and move to England rarely to return to Scotland.

Everything seems to be at an earlier time (an early source work was early 1500s) and after a short scene for a hanging  couple to open, we are given a theatre curtain with the harsh Old Testament adultery laws of Deuteronomy.  A Biblical sentence of death for anyone straying from the written law of God, and passages that still form the basis of many religions’ implementation for punishment to this day.  These strict and, to our modern views, brutal punishments clash violently with modern Scotland’s legal stance on same sex marriage.

Costume wise, we are very carefully styled in what appears to be the 20th century, but the glass and chrome room that we are in could be 21st century.

Staging a production like Ariodante is a brave move for Scottish Opera as this work is, it seems, only really just starting to get accepted again by modern audiences.  It is despite any costume and stage setting though still very much a work of its time and probably the most at odds with modern thinking for many will be the very submissive roles that the principal women have here not only to their men, but to their fates.  The pace of the first half is also fairly slow which leaves the second half a lot of work to do to tie up all the plot lines.  I always like the way Scottish Opera is prepared to stray from the safe path at times and takes these risks to bring us such a wide range of works in any season.

Ariodante for me is also a little too submissive to his fate and too easily believes Polinesso about his beloved’s infidelity.  He neither questions the fact enough for me, nor gets angry enough with anyone about the situation.

There is in this production a beautiful blindfolded dance routine by Lucy Ireland and Vince Virr  that flows so beautifully with Handel’s music.

Maybe for me, Handel’s music also presents a problem or two here as it is music that always soothes me ...even when very dramatic things are happening on odd contrast at times.

Review by Tom King


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