Canadian Opera Company presents a dramatic, compelling take on Ariodonte in Toronto
In the Canadian Opera Company’s premiere production of Ariodonte, by G.F. Handel, a holy-roller revival comes to town. The revival comes in the form of the sadistic, misogynistic, creeper preacher Polinesso. During the elegant, highly evocative overture, Polinesso pontificates to a rapt audience of villagers on the perils of seductive women of loose virtue. It soon becomes apparent that the true peril is him.
Polinesso (Varduhi Abrahamyan) is stomach-churningly obsessed with Ginevra (Jane Archibald), the beautiful young daughter of the King of Scotland. Ginevra only has eyes for the gallant hero, Ariodonte (Alice Coote). Her father heartily approves of the match. When Polinesso discovers that Ginevra’s meek, insecure maid, Dalinda (Ambur Braid) is in love with him, he uses her in a cruel scheme to destroy his rival, Ariodonte.
Director Richard Jones did a masterful job of telling the story in a way that was engaging and dynamic for modern audiences. This can be a challenge in opera seria, because the format is fairly unrelenting. Lengthy aria, is followed by lengthy aria, after lengthy aria, with scant usage of duets and small ensembles to disrupt this monotony. Jones deftly avoided the potential for boredom by creating scintillating and compelling drama on stage during the arias.
Instead of the historic, Edinburgh setting, this story is set in a Calvinist, Scottish island during the 1960s. The costuming was simple, and gender neutral, with the exception of Ginevra’s dainty, attire. The performance made use of one set. The king’s house was divided into three rooms with the cunning use of props (it took us a moment to figure out what the doors were, and I do not want to spoil the surprise). One of the most arresting and innovative aspects of the performance was the use of puppetry. The expressive and lifelike movements of the puppets were used to create a pantomime exploring the hopes and fears of the heroes during act finales.
The themes of this work are dark, and the singers obviously had to dig deep to carry this off. Alice Coote in the role of Ariodonte has an innate understanding of how to use the full palate of colours her voice is capable of to tell a story. She is able to transition from fresh-faced sensitivity to raw bitterness from one note to the next.
It was hard to believe that meek, mousy, Dalinda was Ambur Braid. I have seen her perform in concert, and in a number of other roles. She is usually the portrait of grace and self-assurance, and has a voice the size of the Grand Canyon, with the agility of the wind that blows through it. She demonstrated breathtaking emotional range in this role, and her suffering was unbearable to watch. I literally had to look away at times.
Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Polinesso made your skin crawl right off your body. Her timbre in this performance was dark, with an eerie, hollow quality, reminiscent of a reed instrument. This, combined with the convincingness of her swagger, had me wondering if she was a counter tenor at first. This is Abrahamyan’s COC debut, and I hope we see more of her. It is hard to imagine a more believable villain. My only regret in the entire production is that the bad-guy takedown was not slower and more painful, with more stab wounds to the face and testicles.
Jane Archibald’s voice always reminds me of silver bells, and that bright, shimmery, tone is even throughout her range. We heard so much more than the prettiness of her voice in this performance though. Ginevra is a highly nuanced role. She is coquettish, strong-willed, and free-spirited, like the archetypal soubrette. But as she journeys through grief and injustice, she also expands her intellect, and her understanding of her place in the world, ultimately going to a much deeper place than is typical for the archetype. Jane Archibald sang this complex role with warmth and sensitivity.
Just when you think it is all going to end happily ever after, it does not. The villain is defeated, but he also wins. Provocative, beautiful, innovative, all together outstanding.
- Ariodonte is playing until November 4, 2016 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
- Show times are 7:00 PM on October 25, 27, 29 & November 4, with an additional matinees on October 22 at 4:30 PM.
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
Photo of Company by Michael Cooper