Ariodante, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées Paris

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It’s Handel with a French accent. Ariodante’s ballet music owes much to French models but Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques dress the entire score in Gallic elegance and verve. After a nervous start, and despite the usual hairy ride from the natural horns, Rousset draws suave, subtle playing from his musicians, structuring the musical argument with a sophisticated palette of colours. Not a very Saxon approach, perhaps, but a ravishing alternative to the juxtaposition of very fast or painfully slow tempi that often pass for Baroque interpretation.

Ariodante can be a long evening as Lavelli’s undersung and self- regarding production for the Paris Opera in 2001 proved. But Rousset has a knack for finding the right voices and that’s what makes or breaks an opera seria. With the exception of Olivier Lallouette’s unsteady King, this cast is near-perfect. Angelika Kirchschlager’s splendid Ariodante gives us generous singing outside the box that is confident enough to take risks with phrasing to deepen characterisation. Danielle de Niese (Ginevra) has not quite shed her soubrette chrysalis but still makes an impact as a budding tragédienne. Vivica Genaux rattles off villainous Polinesso’s coloratura with evil intent, Topi Lehtipuu’s Lurcanio is a small miracle of legato tenor singing and Jaël Azzaretti’s bright, perfectly projected Dalinda fleshes out her character.

Lukas Hemleb’s staging takes the difficult option of banking almost entirely on acting and gesture. It’s a theatre director’s take, sprinkled with just the right amount of pregnant pauses, but wouldn’t have been harmed by a splash of colour. Hemleb’s clinical, claustrophobic set provides the acoustic panels that allow his cast to sing at right angles to the audience but it’s the voices that keep tedium at bay. Marc Audibet’s flowing costumes go to town on yards of voile for all concerned. Light relief comes from shriekingly camp tournament helmets (audience mirth) and Andrew George’s entertainingly muscular, disjointed choreography danced by gym bunnies in figure-hugging swim suits. Would I sit through it again? Yes, several times.
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