The Salzburg Festival’s House for Mozart houses more than Mozart. Last night, it was the scene of Ariodante, the Handel opera of 1735. This is an opera seria: one aria after another, with some recitative in between, and everyone getting a turn.
In the title role was Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian mezzo-soprano, who is the raison d’être of this production. More than a star singer, she is a leader in Salzburg: the artistic director of the Whitsun Festival, which takes place in the spring. Ariodante is a vassal prince, and thus a trouser role. In this production, Bartoli also wears a mustache and beard.
Her band was in the pit, too. That is, Signora Bartoli is the founding inspiration and the artistic director of Les Musiciens du Prince, in Monaco. It is a period band. Last night, it was conducted by Gianluca Capuano, who hails from Milan.
What is Ariodante about? Well, you know: love, deception, betrayal—it’s an opera.
You would expect a Bartoli project to be researched and prepared to the nth degree. It was. Bartoli is a perfectionist, and nothing that occurs on stage is left to chance. There is room for spontaneity, no doubt, but it is a spontaneity with weeks of rehearsal behind it.
The stage director is Christof Loy, a German. There is something happening on stage every minute. Everyone is acting all the time. No one is allowed to “stand and sing.” (No one is allowed merely to stand while someone else is singing either.) When Ginevra sings a high F, for example, she does so while being accosted by Polinesso. When Ariodante sings his Act I aria, he does so while getting drunk—hammered. In the course of his aria, he simulates fornication. Lurcanio, in his Act I aria, bangs his fist on a wall and slams a door.
There is a great deal to look at—and it is welcome rather than distracting. Dancing, in particular, is welcome. Wonderful, meticulous (yet relaxed) Baroque dancing. Costumes are a treat to look at as well. Some are of the period—Baroque. Some are modern. There is nothing jarring about this mixture, as it happens.
The cast works as an ensemble, seeming to have “bought in” to the whole production. This cast includes two sopranos, portraying Ginevra and her lady-in-waiting, Dalinda. They are Kathryn Lewek, an American, and Sandrine Piau, a veteran Frenchwoman. Each brought off her part with skill and panache. So did Christophe Dumaux, a French countertenor, who sang Polinesso (the villain). He showed some long, long breaths, and an arresting, virile lower register.
Portraying the King was Nathan Berg, a Canadian bass-baritone. He projected kingly authority. When he opened his mouth—you knew he was king. Some of his passagework was a little jowly, in that bass or bass-baritone way. Do you know what I mean? A little muddled and gruff. But the man was always a king. In the part of Lurcanio was Rolando Villazón, the famous Mexican tenor. He did not always sing with ease or accuracy or Handelian style, but he always sang with heart, which goes a long way.
And La Bartoli? She was La Bartoli. A little breathy. A little overeager (which is better than undereager). The voice may be thinner and smaller than it has been in the past, but it is still uniquely hers. (Aren’t all voices unique? Sure, technically, but some are uniquer than others, let’s concede.) Whatever complaints we may make, Bartoli’s commitment is total, and she is a total opera performer, convinced and convincing.
Moreover, Ariodante is a role that mezzos relish and shine in. Two years ago, I did a public interview here in Salzburg of Ann Murray, the veteran Irish mezzo. A member of the audience asked her about favorite roles. She named two: Sesto, in Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito (also being performed this summer in Salzburg, as it happens), and Ariodante.
Did you ever think a Handel opera—a Handel opera seria—could be a total lyric-theatrical experience, and in a relatively unforced way? Well, that’s the way it was in the House for Mozart last night.