Händel – Ariodante

Théatre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday March 16 2007

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production and sets: Lukas Hemleb. Choreography: Andrew George. Ariodante: Angelika Kirchschlager. Polinesso: Vivica Genaux. Ginevra: Danielle De Niese. Dalinda: Jaël Azzaretti. Lurcanio: Topi Lehtipuu. Il Re: Olivier Lallouette. Odoardo: Nicolas Maire. Les Talens Lyriques.

“Indignities for a pittance”. It’s highly unlikely Ivy Compton-Burnett ever danced in an opera, but her terse definition of work must strike a chord in the careworn hearts of those who do. How often, over the years, have we all felt sorry for those poor, cute kids: so much hard work, such beautiful bodies, only to be forced to look ridiculous in front of 1,000 people who wished you weren’t there at all, and smile as you get booed at the end. Presumably for a pittance, too.

Lukas Hemleb’s production of Ariodante has had particularly mixed reviews, ranging from pure panning to sheer ecstasy - though any praise for the ballets has been rare. The sets are simple and, as the French say, efficacious. A triangular space formed by two walls meeting in a point contains a chocolate-coloured “Wendy” castle. There’s a simple gothic window pierced high on the left, there are plain rectangular openings on each side, there’s one simple gothic chair. There are curved slots in the triangular floor, so the walls can open up and a high, round, white tower can slide in from the rear on hidden rails to enclose the space.

The costumes add to this quite chicly-handled, Zen-gothic atmosphere: flowing, white gauze, waisted tunics with kimono sleeves, trains, and medieval designs printed on the front in colour-washed grisaille: armour, a dress or, for the king, a less medieval but nevertheless regal uniform jacket and sash. The women wear very fancy high heels, Sex-and-the-City style; the men, or male characters, trousers and flat shoes. For the tournament, extravagantly-crested helmets elicit a laugh. The dancers, led by a minimalist “jester”, look out-of-place in plain grey Lycra and tight-fitting masks.

I agree with those who have said the medieval feel was achieved with a degree of poetry. (Some have referred to early sets of tarot cards in Italy.) But it seemed to me that the directing was oddly inconsistent: at times, the singers looked undirected, just adopting the usual opera poses and singing; then, out of the blue, they had inexplicable contortions to carry out - the king, leaning over from his chair till his head touched the floor and his feet were in the air – or sudden bursts of modern-looking, naturalistic business, as if breaking out of the operatic mould and into modern theatre or soap opera.

And those poor dancers, writhing knock-kneed and waving hankies as if in a kind of satire on court dance, and banging their bottoms on the stage… They, I think, took the stick for the director, who didn’t emerge on the second night, having been so loudly booed on the first.

I wondered if it was apprehension, after that first-night booing, that held the singers back. We had an excellent cast and they nearly all sang impeccably, but apart from a magnificent Scherza infida in the second part that warmed things up for a while, to me it all remained too well-behaved, needing more fire and abandon.

Angelika Kirschlager gave us, as I said, a magnificent Scherza infida, a great improvement over Anne-Sophie von Otter’s mannered whimpering under Minkowski at Garnier and on disc, but was less at ease in rapid runs. Vivica Genaux had, of course, no trouble with those. Groups of presto triplets may be easy enough for the violins but they’re murder for a mezzo; Genaux rattled them off perfectly, and had the dark timbre and dykey looks the part required, but lacked projection and left me wishing for more oomph.

Danielle de Niese has come a long, long way from Giulio Cesare and Les Indes Galantes at Garnier. I must admit that when the Glyndebourne DVD of Cesare came out, I suspected engineering trickery of some kind, but no: her voice is indeed both louder and better-controlled than before. She does charm better than tragedy and her use or not of vibrato is a bit too obviously artful, but she deserves all the applause she gets.

Best of all, perhaps, was Topi Lehtipuu, so it’s a shame his character doesn’t get more to sing. His high, elegant tenor voice, caramel timbre, good tuning and vocal characterisation are familiar to us all now, either live or on DVD. He has also, I noted on Friday, an almost astonishing ability to change colour during a furious run. He’s outstanding (so I was very sorry indeed he was sick for the reprise of Les Paladins last season).

Jaël Azzaretti reminded me somehow of Rosemary Joshua: a pretty voice, highly competent, but not yet thrilling. Olivier Lallouette had good, bearded, melancholy presence but some trouble controlling both pitch and rhythm (it would be very unkind, though, publicly to wish Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, originally scheduled for this part, had not dropped out).

In any case, it would be madness to complain loudly of such a cast, and Rousset (who, now he earns money, has evening suits that fit) danced beautifully (as ever) in front of his harpsichord and carried the music along, dancing, with him: a more rounded, compact sound than either Christie or Minkowski, with more even tempi, always beautifully shaped, always with a bounce and a spring. It’s just that, as my neighbour said at the end, with opera seria, “il faut que ça pète,” and that extra, mad spark was missing.

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