My regular readers may recall that I tend to get restless during performances of Italian opera seria. For all the musical riches they contain, their strings of da capo arias, characters that don’t interact intensely, and plots short on thriller pace leave me longing for Gluck or Mozart to come along with a less cumbersome way of making opera into drama.
What one must remember is that the composers responsible wouldn’t have been surprised by my impatience: they never expected audiences to sit through performances in the dark in reverential silence. In the theatres of Georgian London, you might arrive late and leave early, take breaks for a pint of porter or a pee, gossip or flirt with your neighbour and generally let your attention wander when the stars on stage weren’t shining. A night at the opera was a casually social affair, more sleazy cabaret than Holy Communion.
So in the name of period authenticity, I decided to watch the Royal Opera’s online concert performance of Ariodante while stir-frying supper, telephoning the bank and sweeping some leaves off the terrace. Yes, I missed out bits which may or may not have been marvellous. But it made the overall experience much more enjoyable.
Ariodante hasn’t been performed at Covent Garden since its première in 1735, and in recent years it’s been closely associated with the London Coliseum, where David Alden’s ‘controversial’ production for ENO has showcased glorious interpretations of the title role by Ann Murray, Sarah Connolly and Alice Coote.
Here the mantle passed to Paula Murrihy, an Irish mezzo-soprano who has been making quite a name for herself in Europe and the USA, but is less well-known in Britain. Tall, slender and noble in bearing, she sang with poise and authority, mistress of both the wounded disillusion of ‘Scherza infida’ (an aria that surely marks a peak of Handel’s genius) and the swaggering virtuosity of ‘Con ali di costanza’ and ‘Dopo notte’. More of Miss Murrihy, please.
As Ariodante's beloved Ginevra, the Israeli soprano Chen Reiss sang with a diamond precision and clarity rather lacking in Sophie Bevan’s gutsy but gusty Dalinda. Ed Lyon gave stylish accounts of Lurcanio’s dull arias, an unshaven Iestyn Davies in skinny jeans had a whale of time as the dastardly Polinesso, and Gerald Finley was superb (but when is he anything less?) as Ariodante’s liege lord. My ear was also caught by a South African tenor Thando Mjandana in the tiny role of a biddable courtier: what a beautiful voice he has.
Christian Curnyn, inexhaustible and ubiquitous in this repertory, conducted this terrific cast with plenty of brio and the orchestra played with a fine sense of baroque idiom. The dance music was cut. Even with the deadened sound that comes through my computer, a running time of two and a half uninterrupted hours and the absence of a staging, this was a performance that ardent Handelians will relish and even backsliders like me can selectively sample with pleasure.
Available to view via www.roh.org.uk for £10 until 20 December