Monday, March 11, 2019

REVIEW: Lyric Opera’s Ariodante by Handel Now Playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago Through March 17, 2019

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Now Playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago
Through March 17
by George Frideric Handel

Sung in Italian with projected English translations

Guest Review
By Catherine Hellmann

At first, I thought there was a mistake in the program, or my eyes are bad (which they are, but I doubted the Lyric had a misprint…). George Frideric Handel’s Ariodante was first performed at Covent Garden in London on January 8, 1735 and “First performed by Lyric Opera of Chicago on March 2, 2019.” 1735? 2019? Huh?? How did it take 284 years (I had to do the subtracting on a calculator...I teach English, not math…) for the Lyric to present this glorious music? What a treasure has been neglected! Well, at last it is here in our beloved city, so “treat yo’self” (thanks, Tom Haverford and Donna on Parks and Rec!) by going to see it while it lasts. (and we hope it won’t be another nearly three centuries to return.)

The plot is a little kooky and quite like Shakespeare. I am going to save myself the mental gymnastics by quoting the Lyric press release which summarizes the storyline beautifully:

“The original plot of Ariodante is full of Shakespearean twists, disguises, mistaken identities, wrenching misunderstandings, and eventual reconciliation (not unlike Much Ado About Nothing). Ginevra and Ariodante love each other and are about to be wed with the blessing of her father, the King of Scotland. Polinesso covets Ginevra and uses her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda (who loves Polinesso), to trick Ariodante into believing Ginevra is unfaithful and provoke his apparent suicide. Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio, meanwhile, loves and is shunned by Dalinda, and blames Ginevra for his sibling’s seeming demise. Eventually Ariodante turns up alive, Polinesso is vanquished, and the “right” couples are united.”

My first reaction was, ”So they both love each other, and her father APPROVES? What is the problem here?” Ha ha ha. Oh, silly me. Enter the super-creepy Polinesso, played by astounding British countertenor Iestyn Davies, to stir up trouble. (In a previous review for ChiIL Live Shows on The Scarlet Ibis for Chicago Opera Theater, I referred to countertenors as “unicorns.” You swear you are hearing a woman singing a “trouser role” dressed as a man...which in this opera is the case with the equally amazing Alice Coote, as future-husband-to-Ginerva, Ariodante. But it is a guy with a super-high voice. It’s a little freaky.) Polinesso is dressed in a priest’s black cassock with a biker look of jeans, a denim jacket, and sporting tattoos underneath his “holiness.” It is an icky transition, especially when witnessing how he abuses Dalinda; I couldn’t help cringing thinking of the priest abuse scandals. Blek. (One really hilarious highlight of the evening is that Davies received “boos” and hisses from the audience at curtain call, not for his performance being poor, but quite the opposite, because he rocked playing a chilling villain. I loved the Lyric audience in that moment!)

My teenagers have to keep me educated of the latest terms on sexual identity (I swear this ties into my review…) like “cis-gender,”  “trans,” and foreign concepts like “preferred pronouns.” But think about the gender fluid-ness of Handel’s opera from 1735. The counter-tenor is a man who sings like a woman, and the title character is a woman dressed as a guy (who looks like a lesbian in this production). When the opera premiered, there were still castrati around, a horrifying procedure performed deliberately before puberty to keep the boys’ voices high. Talk about sacrifice for one’s art! Wow. Radical.

Part of Polinesso’s evil plan is to plant “evidence” of nude male drawings in Ginerva’s bedroom, like she was sketching her new paramour. I don’t know of any straight woman when confronted with that kind of virility who would waste her time drawing...and if he is hung like that, I mused, how does he sing so high??

The most “manly” character is the handsome Kyle Ketelsen as the King of Scotland who is Ginerva’s father. It takes great strength to look that good in a kilt while singing so sweetly mourning the supposed death of his future son-in-law.

Also deserving special recognition is American soprano Heidi Stober as the what-the-hell-is-she-thinking-liking-that-asshole-Polinesso? Dalinda. We have all known friends who like someone who is no good for them, and she is delusional about Polinesso’s sinister feelings for her. Girlfriend, run away from him while you still can! She looks devastated after he tricks her, but she still sings beautifully about how she likes him anyway. Wtf…

At nearly four hours long, this opera is not for the faint-hearted. However, the singing is so superb, and I love harpsichord with recitative; the opera does not feel as long as other operas that are shorter. Handel could have easily cut the singing down by an hour if he left out the impressive vocal theatrics. Eric Ferring as Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio has a musical passage where one word lasts about ten bars of music; I counted thirty-six quick notes for one syllable. But the singers are vocal athletes in fine form, and the arias are just a joy to hear. The virtuosity of the singers is half the fun.  

The modernized staging sets the opera in the 1970’s era of bad fashion. The chorus members wear ghastly sweaters and a mismash of clothing taken from my sister’s high school yearbook. It was ugly then and does not need a revival. Another overhaul was to drop the ballet dances as intended in the original production and substitute with puppets representing the lovebirds. The puppets are mesmerizing and predict the futures of the characters. When the marriage is anticipated, Ariodante and Ginerva are seen getting married and climbing into bed. (Puppet sex! Is this Avenue Q?) Four babies soon follow, which elicited chuckles from the audience. When Ginerva is believed to have been unfaithful, her puppet is portrayed as a common whore, stripped down, dressed in a plastic bag with high red heels, walking the strip and dancing on a pole. The effect is eerily powerful to show her fall from grace.

Brenda Rae, making her Lyric debut as Ginerva, gets to show off her acting and singing talents; she excels at both. Ginerva begins the opera by considering how she can make her “sparkling and seductive charm more appealing to her beloved.” Hmmm...feminist icon, she is not. But by the end, the wrongful accusations from her betrothed and her self-righteous father send her on a different path. Ginerva doesn’t need a man. She’s got a Handel on this. ;-)

Catherine Hellmann is a feminist who loves lipstick, likes gardening but lives in a condo, and hates the cold but adores Chicago. But there are no contradictions in her complete love for theater, books, and her children. 

**This production includes mature themes**

Provocative Baroque drama about abuse and complicity
in a bold, updated staging 

New coproduction and Lyric premiere of Handel’s masterpiece

The Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere of George Frideric Handel’s Baroque masterpiece Ariodante opens Saturday, March 2 at 7:30pm in a provocative new coproduction. There are six performances March 2 through March 17 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago. Tickets start at $39, and are available now at or at 312-827-5600. 


Sometimes opera takes you to completely unexpected, dramatically powerful places.

That’s certainly the case with the Lyric premiere of Handel’s Ariodante, on multiple levels. Some of its thrilling arias might be familiar from concerts or recordings, but the full Baroque masterpiece is terra incognita for many (even though it was wildly popular when Handel, the German expat living in London, was composing multiple Italian operas). Still, there is inviting familiarity in the bouncing beat and virtuoso vocal writing in this new-to-Lyric opera.

The original plot of Ariodante is full of Shakespearean twists, disguises, mistaken identities, wrenching misunderstandings, and eventual reconciliation (not unlike Much Ado About Nothing). Ginevra and Ariodante love each other and are about to be wed with the blessing of her father, the King of Scotland. Polinesso covets Ginevra and uses her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda (who loves Polinesso), to trick Ariodante into believing Ginevra is unfaithful and provoke his apparent suicide. Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio, meanwhile, loves and is shunned by Dalinda, and blames Ginevra for his sibling’s seeming demise. Eventually Ariodante turns up alive, Polinesso is vanquished, and the “right” couples are united. 

Richard Jones’s production moves the story from medieval times to an isolated, religiously fundamentalist Scottish island in the 1970s. Polinesso is an outsider from the mainland who penetrates this closed community in preacher’s clothes, wreaking terrible havoc on several relationships and the fabric of the village itself through acts of abuse and manipulation. Rather than ending with the reconciliation and redemption traditional in 18th-century opera, this production of Ariodante takes an intriguing detour that will resonate with contemporary audiences.

Puppets representing Ginevra and Ariodante pantomime scenes that reflect the community’s expectations and misperceptions of the central couple in this production, replacing ballet sequences used to close each act in the original opera.

Baroque opera “is radical theater,” says Anthony Freud. “Ariodante deals with abuse and complicity.” Lyric’s general director calls this production of Ariodante “a clear, immediate, powerful telling of the story that will defy preconceptions about Handel’s Baroque formality. Our production reflects many contemporary issues. Handel’s masterpiece may be over 280 years old, but is startling in its topicality and intensity.”

The creative team drew inspiration for this production of Ariodante from the dark indie film Breaking the Waves, and also the plays of Strindberg and Ibsen. There are similarities to Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, in which an innocent young woman in Appalachia is seduced by an itinerant preacher. There are also traces of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in the community turning against one of its own. 

Lyric’s splendid cast inhabits the complex characters while singing the daunting score to great effect. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote takes on the title role, with soprano Brenda Rae (Lyric debut) as Ariodante’s betrothed, Ginevra. Soprano Heidi Stober portrays the vulnerable Dalinda, manipulated by the evil Polinesso, played by countertenor Iestyn Davies. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen is the King of Scotland. Tenor Eric Ferring portrays Lurcanio.  and tenor Josh Lovell portrays Odoardo (the latter two are Ryan Opera Center artists). 

Acclaimed Baroque specialist Harry Bicket conducts, and Benjamin Davis (Lyric debut) is revival director. The production is designed by ULTZ (Lyric debut), with lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin. Michael Black is chorus master, Lucy Burge is choreographer, Finn Caldwell is puppetry director and designer, and Nick Barnes is puppetry designer (the latter three are Lyric debuts).  

Don't miss your chance to experience this critically-acclaimed premiere — view the trailer here and find out for yourself why critics are praising its "tight, compelling story and rich, well-developed characters" (Chicago Sun-Times).

In a small town rife with rumors, who can you trust? The highly anticipated U.S. premiere co-production of Handel's Ariodante opened Saturday night and critics are raving. With only five more performances, Ariodante must close March 17. See what people are saying about this Lyric premiere:

"Vocally, visually and dramatically arresting"
"Clarity and rhythmic verve from the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus"
"An opera penned nearly three centuries ago can resonate profoundly with modern times, when staged as tellingly as this"
"★ ★ ★ ★" (out of four) 
–Chicago Tribune

"Unexpected and intriguing"
"The casting for this production could hardly have been better"
"Many vocal high points"
"★ ★ ★ ½" (out of four)
–Chicago Sun-Times

"Dazzling vocal pyrotechnics"
"A daunting tour de force"
–Stage and Cinema

What happens when someone your town trusts is actually the villain? For Ginevra and her beloved Ariodante, things may never be the same. Lyric is proud to produce the company premiere of this important Baroque masterpiece from the composer of Messiah which marries stunning vocalism and riveting drama. 

Making its U.S. debut, this critically-acclaimed Lyric coproduction from Director Richard Jones updates the story to 1970s Scotland, where a close-knit, fundamentalist community provides the thought-provoking backdrop. The Toronto Globe and Mail says, "The decisions Jones has made to update and deepen the resonances of the opera work beautifully both to preserve the integrity of the original and add to it touches and textures that only a modern audience can appreciate…If you needed one example to demonstrate why modern staging and perfectly realized music from the past need each other, this was it." 

Don't miss this highly anticipated Lyric premiere that critics are calling "dramatically complex... deliciously interesting" – (The Toronto Star). 

Handel’s Baroque masterpiece is currently playing Lyric, and there are so many reasons you can’t miss it. Here are just a few: 

1. It’s a Lyric premiere. Believe it or not, this rare gem by the composer of the beloved Messiah has never been performed on Lyric’s stage.

2. The cast is truly world-class. Our dream team of opera superstars have voices ideally suited to bring Ariodante to life.

3. It's the U.S. premiere of a production that earned rave reviews. TheToronto Star called it "deliciously interesting" and the National Post praised its "inspired and meticulous staging."

4. Handel’s music is exhilarating. You will fall in love with a score that exudes both passion and elegance.

5. It's not just great music, it's great theater. This story of true love plagued by obstacles in a small town is just as universal today as it was when the opera first premiered.

Save your seats today for Ariodante, on stage March 2-17, and experience this delightful and innovative production for yourself.

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