'Ariodante' is undoubtedly one of Handel's very best operas - wonderfully dramatic and with vivid, three dimensional characters, the composer put together some splendid music to illustrate the tale. It has been relatively fortunate in the recordings available with all having something to recommend them. Alan Curtis' new recording then, is up against some stiff competition. He has brought together some of his regular singers together with a couple of new names. Joyce Didonato heads the cast as Ariodante and whilst I enjoyed her performance (especially 'Con l'ali di costanza') I kept finding myself comparing her unfavourably to some of her rivals in this role. I find there's something missing compared with the likes of Lorraine Hunt or Janet Baker and I think she's just a little ordinary - 'Doppo notte' was particularly disappointing for me! Karina Gauvin's big juicy soprano is better suited to Ginevra than her recent outing as Morgana in 'Alcina' although she does tend to sound more outraged than despairing when her world crashes around her ears at the end of Act 2 - here I missed the vulnerability of Lynne Dawson. Second soprano Sabina Puertolas (who would have made a very fine Morgana) is really very good as Dalinda (surely one of the most dim-witted creatures ever to grace a Handel opera) and is a good contrast to Gauvin.
Personally, I very much enjoyed Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Polinesso. I found she was one of the few singers to really get into character. I haven't always been terribly impressed with Lemieux but I think she's excellent here, only just pipped to the post (in my opinion) by the gloriously sly Jennifer Lane for McGegan. Topi Lehtipu sings well but again, not much of the drama comes across and the King of Matthew Brook was just a little light for my taste - I prefer a good, deep, dark bass for this role. Curtis conducts a very safe and measured account of the score which is no bad thing - overly fast speeds spoiled much of the otherwise excellent Minkowski recording for me.
So, is this the best Ariodante available? I'm honestly not sure that we have an absolutely perfect recording yet but this is certainly a very acceptable and enjoyable version. Personally Nicholas McGegan has the edge for me and if I could only have one recording it would be that one but happily, I don't have to!
In 1733 a group of wealthy patrons and breakaway Italian singers including Senesino formed the rival company Opera of the Nobility under the direction of Nicola Antonio Porpora, which in the next season displaced Handel from the King's Theatre in the Haymarket. Handel needed to respond to the challenge and take opera up a level with new attractions to bring in the punters.
He moved to the recently opened and well-equipped Covent Garden, and gave opportunities to a number of home-grown singers alongside the Italian superstars. He began to incorporate the Covent Garden chorus (previously the chorus had consisted of the soloists in unison), and recruited the dance company of the famed French ballerina Marie Sallè.
Handel selected the libretto "Ginevra principessa di Scozia" by Antonio Salvi, who had taken an episode from Ariosto's epic Orlando Furioso, that rich mine delved by so many librettists and composers. He reworked the libretto and score several times before Ariodante opened on 8 January 1735. Commercially it was only moderately successful with a run of 11 performances (the next production, Alcina, was much more of a hit), but today many regard this opera as one of Handel's best, indeed it is sufficiently popular that this is the sixth production committed to disc so far.
Alan Curtis in this recording has commendably restituted some of Handel's earlier revisions. Of particular note here is the end of Act 2, where Ginevra is in prison awaiting execution, where Curtis has restored the dream sequence and ballet. Ginevra awakes with a start, and unusually concludes the act with an accompanied recitative, leaving us hanging with dramatic tension.
A couple of days before receiving this set I chanced to hear an aria excerpted from it on Radio 3 performed by mezzo Joyce Di Donato. I felt a little underwhelmed to be quite honest, despite the obligatory cloying praise from the presenter. My concerns were confirmed on listening to the entire set. Di Donato in the title role just does not shine for me on the whole - it is true that she comes good in the famous arias "Scherza infida" (Act 2, where Ariodante learns of Ginevra's alleged adultery) and "Dopo notte" (Act 3, where Ariodante learns the truth about Ginevra's faithfulness), but apart from a few instances such as these she lacks a sharp edge, and can even be downright disappointing. Di Donato at her best can be stunning, but in this instance clearly I have been listening to a different set of discs to the broadsheets with their fulsome tributes.
Di Donato is here outclassed for me by sopranos Karina Gauvin as Ginevra and Sabina Puèrtolas (an excellent singer I have not come across before and I will certainly be keeping an eye out for more of her work) as Dalinda. However, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who has never really lit my fire despite me being a fan of that voice type, comes across once again with relatively few exceptions as rather ordinary playing the baddie Polinesso. Bass Matthew Brook is beautifully regal as the King, and tenors Topi Lehtipuu (surely due a bigger role by now?) and Anicio Zorzi Giustiani support excellently in the lesser roles as Lurciano and Odoardo respectively.
Il Complesso Barocco too has its off moments. Take the King's Act One aria "Voi colla sua tromba", and the bum notes thrown in by the horns. Why Curtis did not insist on redoing this I know not.
With Ariodante, Handel upped his game. Unfortunately I don't think that overall the same can be said for Curtis with this recording. His arrangement is excellent - but his choice of performers and what he has got out of them is less so in some instances. Not having heard any of the earlier renditions, I cannot comment upon the relative merits.
The set is packaged in a hinged cardboard box with the three discs in cardboard sleeves. The accompanying booklet provides background notes and synopsis in English, French and German. The full libretto is supplied with English translation.
Do we really need another recording of Ariodante, especially such a safe and dramatically stilted one as Alan Curtis has produced? There's no doubt that DiDonato has an extraordinary voice, but I have never been convinced by her Handel collaborations with Curtis or Rousset; the voice, like Renee Fleming's, is just too rich and heavily textured for baroque opera. Whilst I can admire her accomplished renditions of Doppo notte and Scherza infida, they pale significantly when compared to Hunt (McGegan) and von Otter (Minkowski). Ariodante is highly dramatic, with extraordinarily beautiful arias for all the singers, and it needs sharply defined voices and committed performances. This is where the Minkowski version excels, perhaps to too great a degree--his crashing tempi certainly jolt the listener at times. In contrast, Curtis' Il Complesso Barocco strum away at an almost somnolent pace at times, leaving the singers to provide most of the drama, which is more than most of them are able to do. Karina Gauvin succeeds in conveying most of Ginevra's joy and despair in what is the best performance of the recording, but fails ultimately to eclipse Lynne Dawson's performance for Minkowski. Marie-Nicole Lemieux is a vocally sly and violent Polinesso, and is preferable for those listeners who cannot bear the ferocious noises that Ewa Podles produces for Minkowski or the rather tame vociferations of Jennifer Lane for McGegan. The real test of a brilliant recording is the performances of the lesser characters of Lurcanio and Dalinda, and I cannot get excited by the performances of Lehtipu or Puertolas. They lack the commitment and passion of Richard Croft and Veronica Cangemi on the Minkowski , two of the best baroque singers working today. Croft's vocal on Del mio sol vezzosi rai set a standard that Lehtipu cannot reach. The Curtis recording is a missed opportunity for the first countertenor to record the role, and a more masculine mezzo from the like of David Daniels would have at least offered something new. Ultimately, if the listener wants a safe and committed performance the choice is still the 1996 McGegan recording. If the listener wants theatricality and hyperbole with stunning performances, the choice is Minkowski. I prefer the Minkowski, but there is still room for another great recording--this unfortunately is not it.