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(lr) Alice Coote as Ariodante and Owen McCausland as Lurcanio in the COC’s production of Ariodante, 2016

 Photo credit: Chris Hutcheson

Ariodante: A masterpiece of innovation and renewal​

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON October 23rd 2016

Alice Coote as Ariodante in the COC’s production of Ariodante, 2016

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser as the King of Scotland (in front row) in the COC’s production of Ariodante, 2016

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

If you had bought tickets to the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Ariodante expecting to see an opera by Handel set in Edinburgh’s castle with its Renaissance furnishings, royal trappings, stylized dancing and costumes from a distant past, you would have been in for a surprise yesterday. The opera at the Four Seasons Centre has turned Ariodante on its ear and presented a bold fresh face to this 18th century masterpiece. ​

​Director Richard Jones placed the opera in the mid-twentieth century in a small, remote, strict, protestant village on an island in the Outer Hebrides complete with its own king. This community of simple people with a strict moral code was in need of a male heir to the throne. Thus the king’s daughter had to find a suitable husband. By giving believability to the characters while maintaining a stylized choreography, Jones created a music drama that kept tension building throughout its four-hour duration. The opera was a disturbing look at contemporary societal issues of sexual abuse, hypocrisy, intolerance, community judgment, and personal integrity.

Any kind of drama demands that the audience suspend disbelief in order to be emotionally engaged in the events on stage. There is a lot to disbelieve in Ariodante, beginning with the notion of a small island off Scotland with its own king, women playing the roles of men, choreographed movement, invisible doors and the inevitable pauses in action stretching through endlessly long 'da capo' arias. It’s a tribute to the development of the characters that the opera succeeded in creating a viscerally emotional response. 

​​Set and costume designer, ULTZ used just one set, a rustic village home, but very cleverly divided the action into three rooms separated by invisible walls and doors. An aria was often sung in one part of the house, while the action and psychology of the drama moved forward in an adjoining room. ULTZ gave the characters a simplicity in their homespun clothes which fit with their strict moral and religious adherence. 

A Scene from the Canadian Opera Company's production of Ariodante, 2016  
Photo credit: Michael Cooper ​

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Varduhi Abrahamyan as Polinesso and Ambur Braid as Dalinda (in background) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production ofAriodante, 2016

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Ariodante, 2016

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

(l-r) Varduhi Abrahamyan as Polinesso (in background), Jane Archibald as Ginevra and Ambur Braid as Dalinda

in the COC’s production ofAriodante, 2016

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Ginevra and Dalinda, played by Canadian sopranos Jane Archibald and Ambur Braid were superb both vocally and dramatically. 

Had the opera ended as Handel intended with the villain dead and the others enjoying a happy ever after conclusion, the themes of Jones’ interpretation would have been lost. At one point toward the end of the third act, it felt like an impending ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ ending would leave the couples resolving all their differences. However, Jones brilliantly found a way to leave the audience with more to consider by his brilliant ending. 

Although Baroque opera may seem like a stretch for many who may think they prefer the 19th century masterpieces, yesterday’s performance may have convinced those in attendance of its accessibility as well as its emotional and musical appeal. We are fortunate that in an age of globalization, the COC has been able to co-operate with three other opera companies in Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam and Chicago to share in the creation of remarkable productions such as Ariodante and thus bring world-class works to Toronto.

Mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan was remarkably powerful in the role of the villain Polinesso, the scheming priest dressed in denim and tattoos under his clerical vestments. The role is often done with a counter-tenor in hopes of giving it a more masculine character. However, Abrahamyan was totally convincing. Watching her performance, it was hard to believe that her last roles had been as the seductress Carmen. 

Tenor Owen McCausland portrayed a strong brother to Ariodante both in his singing and acting. Bass Joannes Weisser sang convincingly with his rich sonorous voice giving authority to his role as King and moral leader of the village. 

Jones dispensed with the ballet sequences intended for the end of each act imaginatively replacing them with puppets in creative dream sequences. Ginevra’s dream of her descent into prostitution and pole dancing was at once hilarious and poignant as carried out by the puppets and their masterful puppeteers.

The opera is incredibly demanding both vocally and orchestrally. Johannes Debus was brilliant in conducting his first opera composed by Handel. Debus found a baroque style and spirit that enhanced the singing and contributed to the drama. We are indeed fortunate to have a virtuosic orchestra as adaptable as the COC Orchestra to realize such an exposed score in a convincing manner. 

Ariodante is nothing without a superb cast of singers. Handel’s vocal lines are always in tune with the emotions of the characters. Each of the characters portrayed a superb understanding of their role. The ornamented coloratura arias charmed and seduced the audience.

Alice Coote delivered a heart-wrenching performance in the title role. Her singing of the ‘Scherzo infida” aria left me feeling her anguish as though it were my own. It would be an understatement to say that she was successful in creating a sympathetic character.