Princeton Festival’s “Ariodante” is a voyage to the 18th century. Staging, vocal accomplishments, and instrumentation ensure that the audience time-travels back almost 300 years. George Frideric Handel wrote the opera in 1734.
The performance opens with an empty stage bathed in blue light. The place has no location and is beyond time. We know that it must be today at Princeton’s McCarter Theater. But we’re not going to stay there. Steven La Cosse is the inventive director. The final performance takes place on Sunday, June 27.
The opening instrumental music is a French overture, with dotted rhythms, weighted toward the wind sections of the orchestra. Strings are not as prominent as they would be in a present day orchestra until well into the action. Richard Tang Yuk, artistic director of the festival, conducts.
Seated at almost stage height, a continuo group consisting of theorbo (Hank Heijink), harpsichord (Lynda Saponara), and cello (Elizabeth Thompson) helps establish the 18th century time frame both sonically and visually. The harpsichord has a range of only four octaves. The theorbo, a giraffe of a lute, with 15 strings and a six-foot long neck, is illuminated by the lighting on stage. (Google, by the way, can lead you to sellers asking about $1500 for a theorbo.) The cello is modern, but deserves its place in the continuo group.
Initiating the stage action, two pairs of men wearing the uniforms of 18th century servants enter from opposite sides of the stage. Center stage, the liveried figures bow formally to each other and then exit. Their task is to pull into position the arches that serve as scenery for the production. The arches have no decoration; they have no architectural pedigree; they give no sense of scale: they could be windows, doorways, or civic monuments.
The first vocal sound is laughter. We have been transported to the 18th century boudoir of Ginevra (Caroline Worra), the daughter of the king. Ginevra, her handmaiden, Dalinda (Marcy Richardson), and other friends float in pastel-colored long dresses. An old woman, dressed in black, knits.
Ginevra reveals that her father, the king (Stephen Morscheck), approves of her love for Ariodante (Rebecca Ringle). The king orders his adviser Odoardo (Asitha Tennekoon) to prepare for the wedding. The atmosphere is one of joy and bliss. It cannot last.
Dalinda is in love with Polinesso (Andrew Nolen), a rival for Ginevra’s hand. With the idea of tricking Ariodante into believing that Ginevra is unfaithful, Polinesso persuades Dalinda to put on Ginevra’s clothes and to let him into the royal quarters while Ariodante watches Ginevra’s supposed betrayal of his love.
Unconditionally in love with Polinesso, Dalinda spurns Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio (James Allbritten).
Eventually, Polinesso, fatally wounded in a duel with Lurcanio, admits his deceit. Ginevra is reunited with Ariodante, and Dalinda is reunited with Lurcanio.
The vocal virtuosity of every singer was memorable on opening night. The principal singers were such champions of vocal calisthenics that, even confronted with the demands of long arias with long phrases, and highly-ornamented repeats, they were able to allow emotion to shade their performances. At rare moments, orchestra and singers were not totally together.
The undisputed star of the production is Rebecca Ringle in the trouser role of Ariodante. With supple voice she comfortably negotiated all the Everests that Handel created. Moreover, with her flexible voice, she covered a landscape of emotion from sunniness in Act One to desolation in Act Two. The vigor and fullness of her low register was particularly impressive.
Choreographer Graham Lustig devised two episodes of imaginative and athletic dancing. In the final celebration scene the dancing by the talented vocal ensemble gave way seamlessly to the performance by professional dancers. The dancing brought lively moments to an 18th century vehicle that might have been static in the hands of a design team less resourceful than that of Princeton Festival’s “Ariodante” team.
Howard Jones designed sets; Norman Coates, lighting; Marie Miller, costumes; and Martha Ruskai, wigs and makeup.
Quiet but constant movement on stage kept the attention of viewers during the long solo arias. Mute performers on stage mimed animated conversations among themselves, or strolled about. They provided singers with people to talk to, to embrace, and to otherwise interact with.
The audience was enthusiastic at curtain call time, even saluting the evil Polinesso with heartfelt “boos.” Director La Cosse bridged the gap between the 21st century and the 18th. His “Ariodante” moves at a measured pace but bristles with compelling detail. This is Dover sole, not chipotle.
Ariodante, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, Princeton. Sunday, June 27, 3 p.m. Handel’s opera. $30 to $110. 609-537-0071 or www.princetonfestival.org.