Ariodante - Barbican, 25 May 2011
Nice singers, shame about the band. Anyone who came to hear Joyce DiDonato won't have been disappointed. Costumed as Ronnie O'Sullivan for her cross-dressing title role in this concert performance, she outclassed everyone else on stage with her clean line and crisp coloratura.
The unbridled joy of her concluding Dopo notte was perhaps too innocently expressed. Handel knows exactly what's on Ariodante's mind as he finally gets the girl. He sings of his legno (ship/wood, pun intended) coming in to port, and the coloratura is positively panting with the physicality of his affections. But the rest was perfectly judged. Her otherwise sunny disposition clouded in an instant to make Scherza infida even more heartbreaking, phrases spat out in bitterness and curled in regret. It was a technical and artistic tour-de-force, the high point of the evening, and a wily point at which to break the nearly 4 hours for an interval.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux was a welcome return visitor for the third time this season, this time as the Ariodante's duplicitous rival Polinesso. Her technique is not as assured as DiDonato's - much of her coloratura entirely escaped vocalisation. But she's a more instinctive performer, and compensated for the static staging with the sort of uninhibitedly villainous characterisation that makes you want to boo for all the right reasons.
Karina Gauvin's slender and lovely soprano made the princess Ginevra seem a worthy prize for the rivals' affections. As Dalinda, the agile soprano of Sabina Puertolas made all the right noises, but lacked a degree of identity.
As so often in Handel, you get the impression the men are really only there to round out the plot. Barbican casting frequently reflects that fact with the wobbly old basses and undernourished tenors dredged up. But Matthew Brook as the King of Scotland and Nicholas Phan as Lurcanio didn't fall in this category - both gave top-drawer performances, excelling in technique and conviction.
What a pity Alan Curtis's Il Complesso Barocco couldn't live up to their standards. Sluggish yet metronomic tempos, inexpressive string playing, ear-torturing tuning and a pair of natural horns that sounded like they belonged in a toy shop. Can Handel really have wanted his music to sound this devoid of human spirit? I'm all for gut strings and period instruments, but wouldn't it be interesting - just for once - to hear the sort of conductor who normally wouldn't touch Handel with a bargepole?