George Frideric Handel
Salzburg Festival

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Cecilia Bartoli (Ariodante) Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Salzbug Festival
Bartoli and Kathryn Lewek (Ginevra), Rolando Villazon (Lurcanio, bottom left), Sandrine Pian (Dalinda, to left of Bartoli), Nathan Berg (King, behind) Credit: Salzburg Festival
Baroque dancers Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Salzbug Festival
Christophe Dumaux (Polinesso) teases the court dancers Credit: Salzburg Festival
Nightmare visions for Kathryn Lewek (Ginevra) Credit: Monika Rittershaus, Salzbug Festival

Gender-bending, time-travelling and Cecilia Bartoli in a beard. There was plenty for the press to write about when Ariodante was presented at the Salzburg Festival in 2017, with comparisons inevitably made between its star and 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst.

Costumes range from full-armoured knights, through Georgian wigs and flouncy Watteau dancing maids, to modern dress. As for sex, we have a hirsute hero who gradually abandons both male attire and the beard, while his beloved Ginevra travels in the opposite direction, defrocked, ending up in jacket and boots.

Uncertainty prevails. And yet for all its strangeness, Christof Loy’s magnificent production comes pretty close to what Handel intended, albeit seen from a modern perspective.

In 1735, an aristocratic faction had ousted the composer from the Haymarket to the lesser theatre in Covent Garden, but by way of compensation he acquired a group of French dancers, and probably an independent chorus too, that role having previously been doubled by the principals.

Aided by a good libretto, set in Scotland but based on the archetypal mistaken lover theme, Handel responded with one of his greatest operas, a succession of brief recitatives and extended arias, interspersed with Baroque dances, cleverly integrated into the action here by choreographer Andreas Heise.

And despite the overall length, more than three-and-a-half hours, it’s the integration also of every gesture with every note that marks Loy’s vision as a dazzling success. That and a knock-out performance by Bartoli in the role originally written for a castrato.

She has several showpiece arias, freely interpreting bar lines for dramatic effect in Tu preparati, matching embellishments to swirling emotions in Scherza infida and Cieca note, bursting with increasingly flighty joy in Dopo note, a gloriously jolly piece culminating in saucy finale with a symbolic cigar.

But the absolute tour de force comes in Con l’ali di Costanza. Ariodante, the happy bridegroom-to-be has obviously had a drop or two of the hard stuff, but Bartoli is as steady in the difficult coloratura as she is unsteady on her feet. Never have hiccups been so melodious. Her brilliance brings the house down.

American soprano Kathryn Krewek as Ginevra displays similar vocal agility, even when being wickedly manhandled by Ariodante’s enemies. It’s a role of wide emotions, aptly played. The young, naïve princess trills and literally jumps for joy in act 1, but later, believing her lover dead, tenderly caresses the pianissimo lines of Il mio crudel martoro. Employing minimal vibrato, she sounds like a choirboy. The effect is heart-rending.

Sandrine Piau (Dalinda), Rolando Villazon (Lurcanio), Christophe Dumaux (Polinesso) and Nathan Berg (King) are all first class, each of them finding ways to interpret phrases in a way that illuminates character. A few moments stand out in the memory:

Piau, one of my favourite singing actresses, wrongly believing that bad-lot Polinesso returns her love, fans herself as she trills in thrall to his charms, as if the notes are just too hot to hold.

Dumaux, who has great depth of voice for a counter-tenor, clearly relishes his villainy, teasing courtiers and courtly dancers as he enjoys his power; Berg as a somewhat empty-headed King of Scotland and father-of-the-bride has to be calmed down after a little partiality to the national drink, but, faced with disaster, is deathly still in Invida sort avara, an unusual legato lament for a bass.

Villazon’s voice has darkened considerably since his early tenor days, and I wonder if he is following the Domingo path toward more baritone roles. His part lies quite low, but he navigated the extremely tricky florid lines securely, and if the voice seemed to break at times, this was entirely in keeping with the dramatic effect.

He shares Dite spera, e son contento, one of the few duets, but one of Handel's loveliest, with Piau, whose equivocal reaction to his questions about her surviving love for Polinesso, her now dead betrayer, makes the scene entirely lifelike. It's a fitting commentary on the overall credibility and poignancy of Loy's creation built around a bearded lady.

Conductor Gianluca Capuano extracted sympathetic accompaniment from Les Musicians du Prince, an orchestra founded by Bartoli, and himself contributed beautiful continuo passages on the harpsichord.

Reviewer: Colin Davison