* Notes *
Today's matinée performance of Ariodante was the San Francisco Opera premiere of Händel's 33rd opera, which was first performed at Covent Garden in 1735. John Copley's production is slightly busy, there is a lot of movement to offset the supposed statis of the libretto. For the most part this was not distracting, though certain singers were noticeably quieter when they were made to move upstage during their arias. The sets, by John Conklin, are elegant and feature a large upstage frame, which alternately has different backdrops and props in it. The effect is often like a gigantic diorama. Some of the classical sculptures or architecture of the set were at odds with the Michael Stennett's sumptuous costumes, which had a more Baroque Venetian look, as they were based on the paintings of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. There were also several walls painted to look like marble that moved around to change the scenes, and this was visually excellent, though occasionally noisy. The choreography of Kenneth von Heidecke was innocuous enough, and was well-executed. Duane Schuler's lighting was complementary to the backdrops, the one of clouds and blue sky almost looked as if was pulsating, so vivid were the colors. The production made no overt reference to Scotland, though this is where the libretto is set.
Patrick Summers could never be accused of conducting in a sluggish manner, some of his tempi were brutally fast. There was a sour note in the brass section during "Voli colla sua tromba la fama," and a horn was off during the sinfonia at the end of Act I. However, the most beautiful moment of the opera was Ariodante's aria "Scherza infida" in Act II, and this was in no small part due to the orchestra. Susan Graham was incredible in the title role, her tone pure and bright. Graham was able to sing the same words over and over without being boring in the least, coloring the notes in an array of shades. She also looked dashing, her statuesque height is to her advantage in this role. Ruth Ann Swenson was lovely as Ginevra, her creamy voice showed little strain, though she was off from the orchestra for a few seconds in Act I. Sonia Prina had a promising debut as the villain Polinesso, her voice has a good heft and a richness, though she did have moments of difficulty. Her second aria in Act I ("Spero per voi") was particularly fine. She looked exceedingly boyish, though she is not tall. Verónica Cangemi (Dalinda) certainly had her work cut out for her, given how great the other female singers were. At her best Cangemi has a nice voice, clear and cold, with sufficient volume. At her worst she sounded ragged and a bit shrill, but this was rare.
Richard Croft was strong as Lurcanio, very sweet, though not terribly nuanced. Andrew Bidlack (Odoardo) acted well and was not overly loud, as some young singers can be. Eric Owens looked regal as the King of Scotland, his voice is not opulent and is slightly quiet. He was completely convincing in his heartbreaking Act II aria, "Invida Sorte Avara." It was passionate without being sentimental. As far as I could tell, Anders Froehlich did not sing in the role of Polinesso's squire, but he was menacing in his movement. The chorus was superb as usual, and ended the opera just wonderfully.
* Tattling *
In the last 5 minutes of Peter Susskind's opera talk, an elderly fellow with a cane insisted that he sit in the third row of the orchestra, despite the fact that the only free seat was not on the aisle, and the three people had to stand up to let him through. 30 seconds after the talk ended, this man turned to me and stated that I was in his seat. I told him I was getting up, though did not mention I was only waiting for the pair next to me to leave, as I hardly wanted to step over them. One of the ladies explained that orchestra seating was open for the lecture, to which he retorted "Well, it's not the lecture now." After a trip to the powder room, I returned to the third row to check just which seat it was, and the man was not in C 105 where I had been sitting. I am unsure why he took the trouble to bully me out of his seat, but I suppose he must be a subscriber to the M, N series and it probably took him years to get to that particular spot.
David Gockley has recorded a new message played before the performances. It does not mention turning off electronic devices, and I noticed there was a cellular phone ring during the da capo of Dalinda's first aria. There were no watch alarms on the hour, at least. Stage directions were audible before Polinesso's aria in Act II. The supertitles were apparently arch, for the audience laughed at them more than once.
To my disappointment the most absurd visual element was removed from the production. At the dress rehearsal there was an over-sized sculpture of a horse's head resting on the right side of the upstage frame during Ginevra's Act II mad scene. It did not read well, as the ear and mane were not visible, and at first I thought it was a frog or perhaps a hippopotamus. Then as Ginevra grew more frenzied, a second horse head was lowered from the ceiling. I did not find this much sillier than the colossal Venus head that has a strange forehead that appears in Act III or the extremely large Corinthian capital that also shows up in that space.