Six decades ago, opera companies began bringing Handel’s musical dramas to life, but it wasn’t until 2002 that San Diego Opera entered the game with “Ariodante.” In the years that followed, the San Diego Opera offered a grand total of another Handel opera, 2006’s “Julius Caesar in Egypt.”
It’s a good thing for fans that over the past 10 seasons the scrappy Opera Neo has stepped up to feature Handel opuses such as “Partenope”, “Rinaldo”, “Agrippina” and “Serse”.
At a large gallery in Bread & Salt on Saturday, a sold-out crowd braved the heat and humidity to watch the production of Opera Neo’s “Ariodante.”
Unlike last week’s “La Finta Giardiniera,” which was full of vampires, director Peter Kozma stuck to the libretto’s courteous plot, with minimal anachronisms, including handing out pink cotton candy to celebrate the engagement. of Princess Ginevra with Ariodante.
Kozma was also the lighting director; in Ginevra’s crazy scene at the end of Act II, Michael Wogulis’ minimalist set of scaffolding and moving panels was bathed in candy pink light, a cruel inversion of its earlier bliss.
The castrato who originated the role of Ariodante was a virtuoso, and Handel put that skill to good use with several stunning tunes. Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie Doche took up these vocal challenges with bravery. She looked the dashing hero role to boot. She navigated difficult runs and rolls with ease, even when called upon to step on firm legs in an illustration of the flight of love on the wings of constancy.
Doche’s aria “Scherza infida” presented beautiful sustained tonalities, roundly formed with imperceptible breaths supporting the melody. During this song of suicidal desperation at Ariodante’s perception of Ginevra’s betrayal, Wogulis’ mirrored panels ostensibly cracked.
Soprano Ashley Fabian did a tantalizing Ginevra, full-voiced portraying the excitement and joy of her engagement, and later the confusion and horror of her crazy scene. His aria “Io ti bacio” was soft and touching.
Handel wanted the villainous Polinesso to be a second castrato, but none were available, so a contralto created the role. The recent trend is for countertenors to take the role. Keith Wehmeier looked quite heavy and could sing powerful held notes. However, that power sometimes wore out during quick passages, sometimes trailing behind the beat.
As Dalinda, soprano Sara Womble maintained a big vibrato throughout her runs. In her last aria, she released her rage in a torrent of notes.
Tenor Brian Skoog was a strong Lurcanio. As King, bass Andrew Boisvert’s base notes took a while to warm up, but once that happened, his deep register was put to good use in “Invida sorte avara”.
Benjamin Bayl conducted from a two-manual harpsichord. The orchestra included period oboes (doubling the recorders), horns, trumpets, two theorbos and even a second harpsichord. Despite overwhelming humidity, the ensemble played with admirable intonation. They supported the singers beautifully during the slow numbers and provided a driving accompaniment to the virtuoso tunes.
Compared to Handel’s other operas, “Ariodante” has a large amount of ballet music. Judicious cuts were made, and it was probably for the best, considering that no one on stage appeared to be a trained dancer. Sean Flanagan’s choreography relied on lots of simple stomps, steps and turns with rudimentary arm movements. It was limited but effective, especially during Ginevra’s hallucinatory dreams at the end of Act II.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.