By Ian Rigg
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
― Maya Angelou
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ariodante takes a rarely-produced opera by Handel and indicates it still has something to say.
The action of this revived production takes place in a 1970s Scottish manor, set in a not-so-distant past: however, thoughts flash to the modern day, where this story about an abusive, manipulative man’s word defaming an innocent woman in an overtly theocratic society alarmingly resonates.
In revival Director Benjamin Davis’ take, it is women who take center stage, even as they are pushed onto the sidelines. Whereas the musically rich but narratively trite Handel original is about the triumph of virtue, innocence and love, this production is about the dismissal of women’s’ agency. Davis positions it as Princess Ginevra’s story: the irony is well-played for the thesis, for she is thus not even the titular character of her own tale (Ariodante may have 7 arias, but also disappears, presumed dead, for a large tract of story).
The set is large and well-crafted, and allows for multiple scenes to play out simultaneously behind ‘closed doors’, but given Lyric’s penchant for moving grandeur, one wonders why the house couldn’t roll back to reveal a Scottish bluff from the program cover, where Ariodante has an anguished aria while contemplating throwing himself off it. But instead, the big showpiece is more understated and unexpected: a puppet show! The exquisitely expressive puppetry (designed by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes, and performed by Kate Colebrook, Sam Clark, Tommy Luther, and John Trindle) is cheeky but provocative, expounding on the productions’ thesis statement about the vilification of women, while simultaneously showcasing how the lovers are mere victims to the perception of others, tossed along without free will for show.
Clocking in at nearly 4 hours, the piece itself skews toward bloviated excess, but when it’s this exquisitely sung and played, it’s difficult to mind.
As the King of Scotland, Kyle Ketelsen, sublime bass-baritone, booms through the monarch’s split will between grief, duty, and love and simultaneous scorn for his daughter.
Terrific tenor Eric Ferring brings a dashing yearning for justice to his Lurcanio, with the avenging vocal power to match.
Iestyn Davies, an ungodly gifted Countertenor, is utterly odious as the Machiavellian misogynist Polinesso. In this rendition, he has been clad in the costuming choice of a Jesuit cloak, making him a man of the cloth on the surface but an abusive denim-clad ex from the wrong side of the tracks underneath, which adds further layers of pernicious perversion to the python of a character. Davies is truly tremendous in this villainous turn.
But just as this production is devoted to women, so too does it belong to the phenomenal women performers.
When Alice Coote could not perform on opening night due to severe flu, Julie Miller truly triumphed with conviction, naive heart, pain and devotion in her valiant Ariodante.
Brenda Rae simply shines in her Lyric debut as Ginevra, with a lilting and piercing power. It is a joy to see her walk away from all the men who doubted her in the productions’ impactful ending.
And as tormented lady’s maid Dalinda, Heidi Stober is perhaps the show’s crown jewel, hidden in plain sight. On top of tremendous vocal demand of the show, there’s an incredible physical and emotional demand as well as she’s tossed around in a disturbingly violent violation tableau perpetrated by the object of her affections, the demented Duke. Luckily, to bring justice to this role, Stober is a star. Through her impassioned portrayal, the audience sees a woman who has the life and joy beaten out of her before their eyes, all the yearning to please when trapped in a cycle of abuse, and all the distraught horror at the plot she’s become complicit in.
Not everything in the production lands—the climactic knife fight is enervating, brief and strangely blocked to obscure the battle, and the crude drawings further used to frame and defame Ginevra are more silly than provocative—but most of the problems lie in the lackluster stretches of the material itself. However, with astute performances and a new spin on the classic, it seems there are still elements worth resurrecting.
There’s a banner from Genesis unfurled at the end of Acts 1 and 3 that encapsulates the misogynist, Calvinist-leaning world of this production, masquerading as wholesome doctrine: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
By pulling back the closed doors to reveal heinous machinations, Lyric’s Ariodante indicates that these men, should they even deserve it, need all the help they can get.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Ariodante” through March 17 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N Upper Wacker Dr, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Cory Weaver.