02 May 2017

Handling ‘Ariodante’ at Carnegie Hall

Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall,
with Harry Bicket (seated at the harpsichord)
and members of the English Concert.

“You handle Handel like nobody handles Handel,” enthuses a fan upon meeting a famous conductor (Rex Harrison) in Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours, and it’s what I kept thinking throughout Joyce DiDonato’s performance in the title role of Handel’s Ariodante on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. Mind you, I’ve heard some extraordinarily good Handel singing in my day, but Joyce continues to surprise me, doing things that no one else does. When she sings Rossini, I can picture the composer strutting up and down the aisle at intermission, beaming and boasting, “Did you hear that? I wrote that!” When she sings Handel, I can picture the composer asking, “Hang on — did I write that?”

Even in the hands of some very fine singers, Handel’s emotional and psychological palette used to seem simple to me. Arias expressed one of a very few emotions: joy, anger (usually vengeful), sorrow, determination, love. Somehow Joyce has located psychological depths that, as I say, the composer himself may not have suspected; but she presents them so persuasively that I wind up believing Handel is on a par with Shakespeare, Wagner, and Verdi, a master of theatrical arts to give voice to the soul. Who knew the old boy had it in him?

I can only begin to understand how Joyce does this. For starters, in her arias she doesn’t merely ornament the vocal line. She deploys a variety of colors, and she makes uncanny use of her dynamic range. In piano and pianissimo passages, then, she evokes the thoughtfulness of the character, sometimes suggesting that the words she is singing are ones that her character can barely bring himself (Ariodante is a trouser role) to speak. She invites us to the innermost, most private domain of character.

Joyce recorded the opera with Il Complesso Barocco a few years ago.

Repetition is the foundation of Handel’s arias, in the da capo or “A-B-A” style prevalent in his day: in the first verse, the character makes a statement, repeating phrases several times; in the second verse, the character makes a contrasting statement, also repeating phrases; in the third verse, the character resumes the first verse, ornamenting the vocal line. What Joyce manages to do is not only stylish but thoughtful: it’s as if her characters are working out a problem, considering it from different perspectives, striving to explore and to understand the world around them.

Especially in the long aria “Scherza infida,” on Sunday Joyce outdid herself — and brought me to the brink of tears. No ornament seemed gratuitous or ostentatious, and yet no note, no gesture seemed calculated or effortful. And it all seemed fresh. Indeed, returning to the recordings she’s made of the aria, I found constant affirmation of her continuing exploration of this music, the new insights she’s gleaned, her unstoppable willingness to try new approaches.

Joyce was joined by a cast of excellent singers, including ripe-voiced Sonia Prina in the trouser role of the villainous Polinesso. Prina played her role to the hilt, until I wasn’t sure that certain vocal stunts were part of her technique (which is sometimes eccentric) or part of her deliciously juicy characterization. If she’d worn a mustache, I’m sure she would have twirled it, and it’s a tribute to her work that I came across one audience member at intermission who asked who the countertenor was.

Leading the English Concert from the harpsichord, conductor Harry Bicket tended to very speedy tempos that may have reduced the playing time (the concert lasted about four hours as it was) but did few of the singers any favors, especially in Act I. Still, soprano Christiane Karg made an affecting Ginevra, and sweet-voiced soprano Mary Bevan was a revelation as the gullible Dalinda. Rivaling Bevan for mellifluous tone was tenor David Portillo as Lurcanio, Dalinda’s intended. Fondly remembered for his Tonio in Fort Worth Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment four years ago, David is in exceptionally fine voice these days, as evidenced also in his recent run as Jaquino in Fidelio at the Met; this concert was his Carnegie Hall debut, and the audience cheered him.

The role of Odoardo may be small, even thankless, but it served to make me want to hear more from tenor Tyson Miller, who turned in a nicely rounded characterization and elegant singing. Baritone Matthew Brook made his role, the King of Scotland, seem far more important than I’d remembered it to be, and he invested himself wholly in acting the part — even when (as in the conclusion of his “sorrow” aria in Act II, which found him on his knees) he overdid it. His warm tone beautifully suited his paternal character. Really, in most respects this concert performance was ready for the stage, with the trouser ladies wearing trousers and each singer providing thoughtful characterization in gesture as well as voice.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work of the English Concert, notably Alberto Grazzi’s bassoon in “Scherza infida,” and Ursula Paludan Monberg and Martin Lawrence’s discreetly exultant horns; lutenist William Carter wielded a theorbo the size of that baby giraffe everyone’s talking about lately. The strings managed to be crisp, elegant, and supportive even when Bicket spurred them on to greater haste than I’d have liked. In all, it was an afternoon of memorably glorious music-making.

Post-performance: Backstage with Joyce and a friend.

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