Creepy concept destroys Handel opera

The end of Act II of Lyric Opera’s “Ariodante” by Handel. (Photo by Cory Weaver)

What: “Ariodante”
Where: Lyric Opera,
20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Mar. 17


Classical Music Critic

Lyric Opera of Chicago offered its first-ever performance on Saturday night of Handel’s 1735 opera “Ariodante.” You might think that a work not previously seen and performed by the city’s leading opera company would be ripe for a production that treats it with affection and respect.

Lyric has chosen to go another way, offering a dismal, muddled, self-indulgent re-write by director Richard Jones, by way of revival director Benjamin Davis. The Jones “Ariodante” has already been seen in Amsterdam and Toronto after it premiered in Aix-in-Provence in 2014. So Lyric has known for years what violence this production does to the story but presented it anyway.

“Ariodante” is the story of the King of Scotland who has agreed that his daughter Ginevra should marry Prince Ariodante. Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, tricks people into believing that Ginevra has been unfaithful to Ariodante by deft use of Dalinda, a servant, so her father and her fiancée condemn the princess. Lurcanio, the title character’s brother, challenges Polinesso to a duel and on his deathbed Polinesso admits his plot and the prince and princess are joyfully re-united.

The tedious Lyric production updates the setting to a Scottish island in the late 1960s populated by dour fishermen and sheep farmers armed with bibles who follow Polinesso, a creepy religious leader and violent bully who covers his tattoos and biker style jeans with a stern black cassock. Handel’s Polinesso, who has a lust for power, is transmogrified into a villain from central casting who merely lusts.

We are left in no doubt as to the depths of Polinesso’s black heart during one scene where he sexually brutalizes Dalinda in the most grotesque way. This is later followed by a puppet scene where Ginevra is presented as a cheap pole dancer. Puppet scenes in all three acts replace what Handel scored for dancers, but the puppets are only a few feet tall so it is often difficult to see what they are doing, this made even more vexing by the fact that the puppeteers consistently get in the way of the puppets themselves.

The clothing worn on stage is credited to a man who is known professionally as simply “ULTZ” and consists primarily of dreary sweaters and trousers in dull drab hues of Scottish oatmeal, dead fish eyes, and ugly orange. Ariodante looks like one of those guys on a weight loss commercial who is swimming in old clothes that are now way too big. He appears as heroic as a sleepy plumber called out in the middle of the night to tame a burst pipe. The King is given a kilt and clean socks, making him the sartorial standout.

The set is a house with three rooms. There are no walls demarcating the rooms, but there are doorknobs on funny poles with wheels at the bottom that folks on stage can wheel open and closed. What begins as an annoying affectation becomes a hideous distraction as the doorknobs are constantly wheeled about, never adding a whiff of any purpose.

“If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third,” dictates the dramatic principle known as Chekov’s Gun. Jones and Davis offer a wall decorated with over two dozen knives, so you know a blade fight is coming. Yet when it does arrive, this too is nearly impossible to see as the chorus forms a line between the audience and the fighters. In fact, the chorus members are constantly getting into lines, primarily to move furniture this way and that, and then left to stand stock still for ages at a time.

And while Handel wrote an opera where the lovers are reunited with ecstatic music proclaiming love and joy, this “Ariodante” has Ginevra pack her bags and walk off, presumably in a repudiation of the patriarchal system that had tormented her. But in order to make Ginevra a feminist hero, we need to have a Dalinda who is so deprived of reason and self-respect that she is attracted to the unctuous Polinesso who indulges himself by sniffing Ginevra’s undergarments, and is willing to engage in his brutal, masochistic sex play.

Giving one sister release at the expense of the total humiliation of another sister hardly qualifies as a feminist victory. It is instead the same old situation where a man (in this case the director) pretends to champion women all the while compelling one of them to abase herself in the most appalling way for the cause.

Handel must have first turned over in his grave and then wondered if he could find a good defamation lawyer within the precincts of heaven.

The audience was not fooled. There were significant numbers who left at both intermissions. I rushed to the main exit to find out what they thought before they made their way home. “Disgusting,” “terrible,” “utterly confusing” and “lame” were what they said, young and old alike, as they rejected this sour approach to Handel.

There was some fine singing, but it is hard to appreciate the beauty of Handel’s music during lurid sex scenes, or the presentation of crude sexual drawings, or while a puppet with bright red shoes tries to swing on a stripper pole. Alice Coote, cast in the title role, had the flu and could not perform, but Julie Miller eventually found her footing and sang quite well by the third act. Brenda Rae as Ginevra struggled at first but her voice was warm and pleasant by the end. Iestyn Davies as Polinesso sang magnificently as did Kyle Ketelsen as the King. Heidi Stober was splendid as Dalinda, and Eric Ferring made the most of his outing as Lurcanio. Harry Bicket drew glorious music from the pit and the furniture movers sang beautifully.

Never have four hours at the opera seemed so long and hectoring. The Jones/Davis team inserted lots of handpicked biblical quotations attacking women, but they might have considered Philippians 2:3—“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.”