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 Recording of the Week  Handel's Ariodante

After venturing into little-charted territory with his acclaimed recording of Berenice (reviewed by Chris around this time last year – Presto News, 14th June 2010), Alan Curtis continues his Handelian project with one of the composer’s best-known operas – Ariodante. It is a barnstorming tale of skulduggery, betrayal and mistaken identity, set in medieval Scotland: the melodramatic plot (which hinges, like Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, upon a maid disguising herself as her mistress receiving a lover the night before her wedding) and string of bravura arias won Ariodante instant success when it opened at Covent Garden in 1735. Since the Handel revival in the late twentieth century it has regained a prominent place in the repertoire, both in the opera-house and on disc.

Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato

Recorded in the Northern Italian village of Lonigo last January, this new set has all the hallmarks of Curtis’s earlier projects: the pacing (even during the dramatically static first act) is immaculate, the continuo-playing (the excellent Andrea Perugi on harpsichord) is characterful yet never obtrusive and – most importantly for an opera which contains so much ballet-music – the music really dances. The dance-music may be in the French tradition, but Curtis’s pointing of the snappy dotted rhythms and judicious use of bagpipe-like drones in the continuo section remind us that the work is set in Scotland, something that has never occurred to me on listening to rival recordings.

The cast is headed by Joyce DiDonato as the eponymous prince who is duped into believing that his fiancée Ginevra (daughter of the King of Scotland) is having an affair with his rival, the dastardly Duke of Albany who himself has pretensions to the throne. Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux is thrillingly butch and deliciously insinuating as Polinesso, the Machiavellian Duke who eventually gets his comeuppance in best Baroque tradition: some slight fogginess in the low-lying passagework is a small price to pay for the pleasure of hearing a voice of this amplitude in Handel, and she extracts every last drop of malevolence from the text without ever straying into hammed-up moustache-twirling territory.

Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu sings with his usual class as Ariodante's brother Lurcanio, switching convincingly from dejected lover in the first act to swashbuckling avenger in the second, where his fiercely virtuosic ‘Il tuo sangue’ is one of the stand-out arias of the entire set. The four women’s voices are well differentiated (on some recordings, it can be difficult to tell the characters apart in the early scenes), yet complement each other beautifully: the silvery soubrette of Sabina Puértola (a new name to me, but on this evidence definitely one to watch) contrasts nicely with the darker-hued soprano of Karina Gauvin’s Ginevra; Gauvin, in turn, blends gorgeously with DiDonato’s high mezzo in their duets, particularly the lovingly-sculpted ‘Prendi per questo mano’ in Act One.

As for DiDonato, it seems impossible to imagine this role sung better: she’s no stranger to the ferocious technical demands of music written for the iron-lunged castrati (the role was created by the superstar male soprano Carestini) so it goes without saying that she despatches the endless reams of fearsome coloratura with consummate panache, but her opening aria ‘Con l’ali di costanza’ still took my breath away on first hearing! In the two great laments (‘Scherza, infida’ and ‘Cieca notte’) she’s utterly heartbreaking, with each repetition of a phrase or section conveying a subtle shift in emotion so that the dramatic tension never flags (her excellent blog reveals that these arias incorporate newly-discovered ornamentation thought to be by Handel himself or by one of the singers who worked with him – see here).

There may be no shortage of good Ariodantes on disc, but this new contender scores highly both as a team effort and for the spellbinding central performance from DiDonato: top marks!

Handel: Ariodante

Joyce DiDonato (Ariodante), Karina Gauvin (Ginevra), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Polinesso), Sabina Puértolas (Dalinda), Topi Lehtipuu (Lurcanio), Matthew Brook (King of Scotland), Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Odoardo) Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC