Starry Handel: Ariodante at Aix-en-Provence

Handel: Ariodante

Ariodante – Sarah Connolly
Ginevra – Patricia Petibon
Polinesso – Sonia Prina
Lurcanio – David Portillo
Dalinda – Sandrine Piau
Il Re – Luca Tittoto
Odoardo – Christopher Diffey

English Voices, Freiburger Barockorchester / Andrea Marcon.
Stage director – Richard Jones

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence. Saturday, July 12th, 2014.

Last year I had the privilege of my first encounter with the great Evelyn Herlitzius’ Elektra for my first visit to the Aix-en-Provence festival. That show took place at the modern Grand Théâtre de Provence. Tonight’s however took place at the highly atmospheric Théâtre de l’Archevêché, an open-air theatre located in the former archbishop’s palace. The seats are wooden but blankets are available and these are useful as cushions at the start of the evening and to keep warm at the end. I paid EUR30 for a seat at the end of the third row with great sightlines and could see the singers close up. I got this seat by being at my computer at the second when tickets went on sale as last year the site crashed within a few minutes of sales opening.

Richard Jones’ staging was insightful and thought-provoking. Indeed, I would even say that it was one of his best. Set on a Scottish island sometime in the 1950s, costumes and the set desgin reflected that period. Jones came up with an ingenious solution to being able to show multiple situations simultaneously. The set was divided into three distinct sections, a hallway, a kitchen and a bedroom. There were no walls between them; however, there were imaginary walls with gates that the cast opened as if they were doors. This was fascinating as it placed the audience in the position of voyeur – we watched events that had an impact on the plot taking place, while the characters were unaware of what was happening. The set also included a small porch at the entrance to the house where characters emerged from outside.

This was a claustrophobic, deeply religious society, yet, as in many of these societies, hypocrisy was not far from the surface. Polinesso was costumed as a priest yet underneath his vestments he sported denim and tattoos. This priest was clearly on a power trip, manipulating Dalinda who seemed to submit to his violent approaches rather than Lurcanio’s more traditionally romantic ones. Ariodante’s and Ginevra’s engagement was celebrated with marionettes dressed as the happy couple. Once Ginvera’s ‘treachery’ came to light, the community cast her out with a marionette show where hers was dressed as a prostitute and a pole dancer. This was deeply shocking and met with a performance of great dramatic force by Patricia Petibon.

The staging ended with the marionettes reappearing this time with Ginevra’s wearing a green dress instead of the white dress she was wearing at the start of the scene. We then saw Ginevra start to change into a green dress leading us to believe she was just changing to join the celebrations. However she continues changing by putting on her coat, taking a suitcase and leaving the house all while Ariodante and the others celebrate. This was unbearably moving and felt absolutely right – there was no way that Ginevra could remain in that society and enjoy a happy end after they had treated her so horrifically. The Personenregie at all points was superb both in the blocking of the chorus and the way the characters related to each other. These were flesh and blood characters, feeling real pain and Jones and his singer-actors completely succeeded in bringing this tale of jealousy and revenge to vivid life.

This was realized by some great singing. I felt that initially, the role didn’t quite lie in the most comfortable place of Sarah Connolly’s voice. She quickly warmed up and gave us a devastating ‘scherza infida’, full of unbearable pain and stunningly ornamented. Likewise ‘dopo notte’ was beautifully done and beautifully ornamented. She was fascinating to watch – an awkward fisherman who was perhaps uncomfortable being the focus of attention and deeply in love with Ginevra.

I enjoyed Patricia Petibon in the Paris Dialogues last year but her Ginevra was much more problematic for me I’m afraid. Her first aria ‘orrida agl’occhi miei’ was a disaster. Unruly coloratura turned into screaming and it made for uncomfortable listening. Throughout the evening, her ornamentation such as in ‘mi palpita il core’, rather than enhancing the vocal line, seemed to exist to pull it out of all recognition. She did settle down though and ‘io ti bacio, o mano augusta’ was much more successful as she simply concentrated on spinning the kind of line injected with pathos that the music required. As an actress she is outstanding but this music requires a discipline of technique and beauty of sound and while, there were some moments of real insight, they were mitigated by droopy intonation, scrappy coloratura and wild ornamentation.

I have been trying for many years to see Sandrine Piau live and having missed her a half-dozen times I was pleased to finally see her tonight. The voice isn’t the largest but she does have a sparkling technique combined with a dusky yet bell-like tone. Some tightness at the very top of the voice revealed that perhaps some of the ornamentation was a little overambitious but she was a delight to listen to. Sonia Prina is the owner of a somewhat abrasive, clarinet-toned contralto and she was terrific as Polinesso. The runs were expertly dispatched and there was a real evilness to her portrayal that was gripping. Naturally, her attention to the text was second to none.

Luca Tittoto’s King repeated the very positive impression that he made in La Calisto in Munich early in the year. He sang with a rich, liquid bass and a fine line. I was particularly impressed by US tenor David Portillo as Lurcanio. He sang his wonderful aria ‘del mio sol vezzosi rai’ with beauty of tone, evenness of emission and a glorious use of text and stylistic awareness. The runs in the faster arias were perhaps too intrusively aspirated but he is young and this is certainly something he can work on. He is definitely one to watch.

The Freiburger Barockorchester cemented their reputation as one of the finest bands on the planet. Under Andrea Marcon’s direction, they gave us playing of great virtuosity, producing a seemingly limitless range of tone colours. Tempi were well chosen, fully reflecting the drama of the situations on stage and the hours flew by.

Tonight’s performance promised much and by the end of the evening, I certainly felt that it had delivered. We are living in a golden age of Handel singing and there were a number of examples of it tonight. The show was a real credit to the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and it is definitely worth seeing as it travels to Amsterdam, Toronto and Chicago over the next few years.


Photo: (C) Pascal Victor



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