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Curtis Opera Theatre presents Handel’s Ariodante
Curtis Opera Theatre took a gamble by programming George Frideric Handel’s rarely staged, dauntingly difficult Ariodante as the final offering of its season. I wish I could report that a high risk paid off with a high reward, but the resulting production, however admirable, was a decidedly mixed bag. Even in its sharper moments, this outing often proved the perils of staging Baroque opera works outside of a specialist environment.
The potential minefields of this work concern not only the convoluted plot, which stage director Omer Ben Seadia did little to illuminate. In the traditional Handelian style, there is foisted love, mistaken identity, brothers pitted against one another, and plenty of trouser roles. At its simplest, the action follows the complicated courtship of Ariodante (Sophia Maekawa) and Ginevra (Juliette Tacchino), whose blissful relationship is sabotaged by the spiteful Polinesso (Curtis alumna Anastasia Sidorova, in a return appearance) and his willing accomplice Dalinda (Dalia Medovnikov). All ends happily, of course, but not until three hours and 15 minutes’ worth of da capo arias have passed.
The work requires at least a half-dozen principal singers trained in the florid style of Handel’s vocal writing: in addition to the characters listed above, we also encounter Ariodante’s faithful brother, Lurcanio (Benjamin Schaefer), and Ginevra’s caring father, the King of Scotland (Evan Gray). Curtis smartly employed Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia’s expert period-instrument ensemble, to serve as the pit band for this engagement. But even with the stamp of authenticity they provided, the total production made for a long and fitful evening.
Seadia delivered a handsome but static staging that did little to aid uninitiated viewers in understanding the action or remaining engaged across multiple hours. The relationships of the characters were often hard to glean. Ryan M. Howell’s taupe-walled set design resembled a high-end spa more than a regal palace, and Joe Beumer’s lighting design was consistently dingy. In a story that requires a fair amount of swashbuckling, Mary Moon’s fight direction failed to quicken this viewer’s pulse.
Although Tempesta di Mare did their best in the pit, they were frequently hampered by conductor David Stern’s sluggish tempos. Handel composed his music to complement the action onstage and, here, you wanted a greater sense of blood and gore. This was Baroque musicianship at its most polite, which is also usually its most uninteresting.
The singers acquitted themselves admirably, though only Tacchino seemed entirely at ease with the elaborate demands of the vocal writing. She brought a rich tone and committed acting to Ginevra’s sympathetic journey. Maekawa’s mezzo soprano was perhaps a size too slender for Ariodante’s beefy vocal lines, but she sang with commitment and cut a dashing stage figure. Sidorova was announced as indisposed prior to the performance, which perhaps accounted for inconsistencies of pitch. Schaefer—now billing himself as a tenor, after beginning his Curtis career as a baritone—sounded somewhat constricted in the score’s highest passages. Shockingly, none of the principals consistently executed proper trills.
What, When, Where
Ariodante. By George Frideric Handel, directed by Omer Ben Seadia. Curtis Opera Theatre. Through May 7, 2023, at the Perelman Theater, 300 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-5252 or curtis.edu.
The Perelman Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
Masks are not required.
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