To get this out of the way: no, this evening is not like “Alcina” (nothing will ever be like that formative “Alcina”), but if the legendary “Alcina” is one Baroque bookend of Wieler’s Stuttgart years, then this “Ariodante”, staged by Wieler and Morabito. may well be the other.
The concept looks at the intersection of class and enlightenment thought, juxtaposing baroque affect against classicist emotion and the question of identity warred between them. Literally: in a boxing/wrestling arena.
If you thought my pet peeve in this would be wrestling garb: no, we have to start sooner. The Stuttgart orchestra is wearing uniform shirts, which look – in sync with the ceiling – like midnight blue with broad, sparkling silver cuffs and collars. It looks like a circus that never left the ’80s and I hope the musicians get extra pay for having to wear it.
The evening is structured like a wrestling match, with an opening (and, in the end, a showdown) where the fighters walk in and strike a pose and immediately remind me of the joys of the German Stadttheater system (joys that, in Vienna, tend to fall a bit to the wayside): it doesn’t necessarily offer the most perfect, superlative voices at all times, but it has the advantage of casts who know each other’s ranges, who are comfortable with each other and have cultivated a style of acting with each other, and who are also familiar with regie approaches. This way, you skip the facing-out prancing and the strangers’ squeamishness around cast mates that often result in empty poses.
This “Ariodante” is an intensely physical production – an intriguing backdrop, though not directly addressed, in a production dealing in the more social concepts of class and gender in regards to identity – and every cast member lives up to the task. They start out having to sell grey sweatpants outfits and this, I swear, will be the only time you will ever hear me cheer for clothes I would otherwise never accept outside of a gym.
Good Lord, it takes some attitude to pull those off, and on that note, hello, Ms. Haller (Ariodante, who *moonwalks* in). Also, hello Ms. Durlovksi (Ginevra), and Ms. Durlovki’s haircut. The evening starts out – do not challenge me to remain straight-faced as I write this – on a perfectly queer note as both female roles (Ana Durlovski’s Ginevra, Josefin Feiler’s Dalinda) within the first five minutes are donning male garb and poses and then make out with each other.
Of course on a more sophisticated scale, the scene addresses the constructedness of femininity as well as the arbitrariness of gender roles and gender policing apparent in the trouser role lead (keep that in mind, we’ll get to a massive helping of Rousseau later): The cast of grey sweatpants anatomy is tossed into this arena to battle for and grapple with identities, and the first ones to step into the foray are the female characters who – under the baffled and somewhat overwhelmed eyes of the men – strip down to their underwear and go for a suit, a hat, a fake mustache. And the fact that the men are watching this is already a comment on the situation. – Don’t you just love socially conscious German Stadttheater regie where directing teams feel obliged to address sexism when they come across it? (as if I needed another reason to love the production team on this one).
Is this discussion of gender and class, perhaps, the hard-to-pinpoint reason why “Ariodante” has gained so much in popularity in recent years? (and which are aspects the upcoming Vienna production will likely gloss over, I’ll take “You bet! for $400″ on that one)
Of course the conceptual idea of positioning baroque ‘identity’ as an incoherent revue of poses (“You cannot tell from an aria for whom it was written, it’s all just unconnected affects”, we were told in the intro lecture) belittles the Early Modern constitution of self, especially when Rosseau is then discussed as a totalitarian approach that cements injustices in fixed personalities. Have Wieler/Morabito thought themselves into a corner here?
In their early “Alcina”, desire was still an (if utopian) escape route from convention, towards a lived authenticity. Here, the outlook is grimmer: Baroque pretense is unstable and merely ‘theatre’, yet the authentic world without theatre as proclaimed by Rousseau is a dictatorial solution. In this production, faced with Rousseau’s derisive comments on theatre and actresses, the roles dance and sing that vision away. Is this, nearly 20 years after “Alcina” – which was one of the first Wieler/Morabito works for Stuttgart – the disillusioned summary? If we are Baroque, we are fake, yet if we attempt to be ‘real’ and coherent, we are in danger of jailing our selves?
Theatrics play a big part in this “Ariodante”, not just in the outward dramatics of choreographed wrestling, but also in the visible side- and backstage areas beyond the arena, that comes complete with an announcement video cube and a square light bridge. All around the arena, there is stage personnel on the move, as well as benches and corners with props, costumes and wigs: theater mechanics on display.
Ana Durlovski, who might be called the lyric lead of the Stuttgart ensemble at the moment, displays substantial heft for a Ginevra. She has a solid, ample top and good agility. Coming from early music, her trill could be taxed as a little narrow and fast, but it does not come across as forced. Her middle-range runs are full and voluminous, more rapid fire than glassy sweetness, and her larger tone adds to her stage presence.
The Dalinda of Josefin Feiler is vocally more typcial, with a piercing, bell-like top, but a pleasantly rounded tone overall, and likewise good agility. In acting, she displayed some excellent detail work.
Polinesso was cast with countertenor Gerald Thompson, in a somewhat thankless position as he had to step into a role portrayal that was designed for Christophe Dumaux, whose (
gym slut very trained) physical menace is difficult to outbalance. Thompson went all in, though, and gave an honest and involved performance, which to me as an audience matters far more than a perfect outcome. I want people to invest in creating something in my presence. Johnson showed off some some well-placed ornamentation work (his melisma intro into “Spero per voi, sì, sì” was beautiful) and got in a few forceful top notes, but he did at times have trouble to get across the pit with the overtone spectrum at his disposal, his tone – as with many countertenors – thinning out at times, and bordering on shrillness when forced to push. In quieter moments of either speed, he gave a convincing and intelligent performance.
Stuttgart is not a terribly big house, and it served as another reminder how preposterous it is to educate voices with a technique coined for intimate chamber music and then expect them to fill huge halls built for the late romanticist voix sombrée without damaging their tone. How?!
Both tenors gave very good performances. At first, I mixed up Sebastian Kohlhepp’s Lurcanio, mistaking him for the scenically more immediately present Odoardo of Philipp Nicklauss.
Kohlhepp’s voice is essentially a Tamino tenor, capable of smooth line and piano with enough core to manage a few outbursts (also, he won the final wrestling match. Against Polinesso. While wearing a see-through netting shirt). Physically, he is on the lanky side and needed a bit longer to arrive at a carrying presence. His strong moments were not braggart poses (though it was interesting that he was staged gaining confidence the moment he donned a ponytail wig. What chiffre is that?), but in awkwardly courting Dalinda (for “Del mio sol vezzosi rai”): a moment of failed romantic masculinity not played for laughs, but allowing for self-doubt as well a for a choice on Dalinda’s part.
Nicklauss’ Odoardo, in turn, didn’t get much chance to shine vocally, but made a scenic impact in both quantity and quality, particularly next to the King of Matthew Brook, who is set apart by his age in this cast, but doesn’t infuse his portrayal with any less physicality. He kept up with the rest, who in part must have been half his age, and even performed complex asymmetrical choreography while singing offbeat ornaments. Impressive!
With Brook, at first I wasn’t sure whether he simply might be a very well cast ensemble member, but his line structure in “Invida sorte avara” gave away the Early Music background (he’ll also be the King in the concert “Ariodante” at TADW in May). He was never relegated to the older figure of authority to the side and went broke in some large emotional outbursts, including the evening’s most poignant dismantling of upper class masculinity: the King, forced to renounce Ginevra as impure and condemn her to death, breaks down in wails and cries and sobs, his frame crumbling to the floor. He is then awkwardly comforted by Odoardo, for whom he is a fixture of authority, and who is in turn embarrassed and stupefied and uncertain how to handle this implosion of austere seniority and (toxic) hegemonic masculinity. He tries to reach out and does not know how to. And it is so important that our culture allows for visuals like this without ridiculing them, to paint men – especially men in positions of power – as capable and vulnerable to emotions and free to express them, or to be overwhelmed by them, as any other person. A fantastic scene.
And, apropos fantastic, we need to talk about Diana Haller (who can barely have hit 30 yet, if at all. – Yes, I do have my Cougar Badge right here, thank you). How do I explain to you Ms. Haller? Let’s go back to “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch”, and her two vodka aunts, Hilda and Zelda.
Hilda and Zelda, in this scenario, are Daniela Barcellona (who is Hilda, of course) and Alice Coote, who is Zelda, and who also gets the caustic one-liners and judgmental eyebrow raises of Salem the Cat. They serve vodka and trouser swagger for a living, and then Cecilia Bartoli comes over for dinner one night, smiles, cooks pasta and charms the pants off of everyone. And nine months later, you get Diana Haller. That’s it. That’s the mezzo genealogy, and I am sticking with it.
Haller on stage has a physical presence remarkable for her age, combining effortless swagger, charm and scenic panache with a good sense of timing and comedy (her reaction faces are gold). Vocally, when she finally steps out of the pit in a signature red suit for “Qui d’amor nel suo linguaggio”, her timbre is overall lighter than I would have expected from her bearing. Her lower range, it seemed to me, is not her strongest feature (it helps that Ariodante is highly virtuosic, but not that low in tessitura): the notes are there, but she has to produce them and the tone quality is a little flatter and denser there. Which is a pity because at times you sit there wondering “What would I want her to tackle next? Rosina or Tancredi?”, and I don’t think she has the bottom range for contralto musico repertory, at least not yet. But she has pretty much everything else: a bright, rich, nuanced middle register that is positively radiant. Focused, unstrained mezza voce lines and well-supported piani. And she has an effortlessly responsive top, somewhat lighter in color, generous in size and with full, ringing acuti that reach from Scotland all the way to a future in Catharge. In short: wow.
Haller’s timbre blends well with Durlovksi’s also more sizable, warm-tinged tone and made for a well-balanced “Prendi, prendi da questa mano”, which seemed just one possible romantic connection among many. Everyone, including the King, is trying out poses and states, interchanging them (also in costumes), building and dismantling narratives, all set against a heightened level of physicality. You’ve got people doing pull-ups (one can only imagine what Dumaux got up to here), jumps and climbs and leaps, and Haller even does an (applause-gaining) number swinging on ropes: working bodies are real.
(On a side note of physicality at this point: thank God for mezzos (and sopranos) who are unafraid of making out with each other if the staging logically calls for it. And on an added note of ‘this evening is turning into queer fangirl service faster than you can say “genderqueer”‘, let me add that the Stuttgart orchestra counts with a very handsome, very butch young horn player who came onto state for “Voli colla sua tromba”. I was delighted.)
There is near constant movement on the stage, singers rarely left alone for an aria. The motion patterns are clearly developed from the singers’ own movements, which leads to some of them not quite taking flight, but avoids any blocked poses without connection to the story. It is, again, the sensation of things happening instead of moving from one safe pose to another (and it is a nice commentary, in an evening that examines Baroque pose, to have all the poses be connected to the singers’ own body biography). Narration works through vulnerability. So does communication, and both avenues succeed in this approach.
Just in time for the recit before “Con ali di costanza”, the evening reaches the flow moment of “Hello, Lutes!” (two, one of whom was a lady lutenist. Swoon!) – a wonderfully patterned figure to move into the aria, which conductor Giuliano Carella took at a very fast speed. So fast, in fact, that Haller was unable to cleanly get through one of the register-switching runs because there was no chance to place it. Her top register stood out here once more, displaying ease and agility.
In this aria, as well as at other points, the evening comments on class: Ariodante, chosen heir to the throne (rather: one wrestler who for the moment takes on the role of being the chosen heir), is shown by the King how to prance and stance royally. In between, a seemingly hung over Ginevra is trying to pry open his trouser flap (which leads to more hilarious faces on Ariodante’s part) before they amble off together arm in arm, Ginevra’s hand comfortably slipping down to cop a feel Ariodante’s backside. It is a level of easy physical communication that is also noticable in Lurcanio’s “Del mio sol vezzosi rai”, where Lurcanio misreads Dalinda’s request to massage her shoulders and he is uncertain how to touch her. (- Side note: Thank you, stadttheater regie, for not pretending that breasts are a repellant zone or magically cease to exist on a body as soon as the hands of a supposed love interest get within reaching distance. No awkward angles of flight security checks here!)
Dalinda’s “Il primo ardor” wins in this setting because it allows her to test out flirting poses, to see how she can affect Lurcanio, joyfully and energetically moving through approaches from ingenue to vamp. And it is only fitting that this aria is met with a cold cut and hall lights, with Polinesso appearing with a bound volume of Rousseau like an an existentialist bible thumper, quoting the Lettre a d’Alembert (on ‘why theatre is a horrible idea and corrupts people’) in its lengthy hate-spewing against actresses as inauthentic and immoral (Johnson gets mic support for the German reading; Dumaux did it in the original French) . All other roles react embarrassed and unite against Polinesso who keeps reading on as they rock out to “Se rinasce nel mio cor”. This conflict carries out through the entire ballet music that closes out Act 1, which will likely offend purists and surely wouldn’t have been the only way to make use of the ballet music, but it was a good regie commentary on the issues raised on gender and identity (it continued through the other two ballet sequences, as well). Rousseau is a little later than “Ariodante”, but the production team argues that social self-staging in the new-bourgeois capital of London is already present in “Ariodante”, moving towards Rousseau’s imaginations of identity.
There was no intermission at this point, and the evening segued into the garden scene where “Tu, preparati a morire” once more showed that if Haller gets the moment to place her middle-range runs, they are beautiful. She also displays – I think at the end of the B part? – a top range mezza voce crescendo that then encompasses the entire hall. Fantastic. And it is followed in the adjacent recit, at discovering Ginevra’s supposed betrayal, by cries and screams and growls and laughs. Haller really commits to the action at 120% here, having me think “Screaming right before Scherza infida, are you crazy?!”
The lutes delivered another swoon-worthy intro (at this point, I was wondering whether it would be an Ariodante aria key move on this evening), and then “Scherza, infida” was delivered for large parts lying down: Ariodante is curled up in the very center of the arena, illuminated by a single, muted spot. I wouldn’t have needed the blown-up, distorted stills of Ginevra (and Polinesso and also Dalinda… in some kind of threesome?) in he background to distract from this moment, it carries well of its own. The low chest notes for “a morte”, Haller took lighter, without pressure, and otherwise showed seamless crescendi and carrying piani that were top-notch (I was calculating how much I will have to pay, and where, to hear her again in the future). The da capo was done very freestyle, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it as independently. Again, likely nothing for the purist, but I enjoyed it. In the middle of this, almost mid-phrase – ater the center of the stage drove up like a box ring – Ariodante dropped about five feet to the floor in a jump
(little voice in my head chanting: “Give me Tancredi! Give me Romeo!”) to then walk into the pit, disappearing into the underbelly of the house, still singing a carrying piano. Again, wow.
Feiler’s Dalinda didn’t have an easy stand directly after than display, but gave a brilliant, chilling reading of “Se tanto piace al cor” as a traumatized victim of sexual assault who is trying to displace herself mentally: small, precise motions, sustained vulnerability. It is echoed in a later scene, when during Ginevra’s “Il mio crudel martoro”, she carries in an endless array of prop buckets in jerky, guilt-ridden movements, shifting with discomfort and avoiding eye contact.
Polinesso’s “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” was, again, a fully committed performance, but had to fight against being swallowed up by the pit at times, leading to some cackling tones that Thompson tied well into the mood of the scene (still, I think his stylistic abilities got thrown a bit under the bus in numbers like this). This aria marked the end of Part I.
Part II, which I found overall less gripping, started with Odoardo toying with the crown that got passed around like the prop it is in the first part. It is then not just him, but the entire stage crew looking over the railing of the arena banisters, that watch Matthew Brook’s impacting performance of the King falling apart.
Another outburst followed this one, with a fanatical, driven “Il tuo sangue, ed il tuo zelo” by Kohlhepp. Overall, I had the impression that Part II was a lot more serious: the earlier playfulness, the interchangeability of roles, was seemingly gone with the supposed betrayal of Ginevra. Now, it seemed, the roles were tied to gender and moral, the feelings suddenly real emotions that enacted identity as an imprisonment – captured on photo by Polinesso who sneaks around like a Handelian Don Alfonso wth a Canon around his neck, an observer detached by virtue of being an outcast.
Ginevra’s “Il mio crudel martoro” is set-up in the reprise as a companion piece to “Scherza, infida”: lying on the floor, face half obscured by a wrestling mask, while video and still projections in the background show the King going mad wearing Ginevra’s signature dress (a flamboyant balloon-type number in blue and white stripes), which was a poignant image, but distracted from Durlovski’s performance. I’d say I could have done without the projections, but they also contained a loop of Ariodante in his red jacket looking back over his shoulder as if painted by Raphael and I am sorry, but I am only human.
The following ballet music sequence is, again, turned into a fight between Polinesso reading out Rouseau (quotes about gendered identity, focusing on actresses – they would be sluts because they’D try to arouse desire onstage, and nothing else, and surely they’d also do something about that offstage, right? – which, in summary, means Rousseau was unable to perceive women as not acting for him or towards him), while the remaining cast tries to cover their ears and shoo and sing his tirades away.
Is Polinesso a Rousseau stand-in here, who acts out because he has been rejected and excluded from the machinations of desire? Or is he also – once more thinking of the social climates emerging in 1730s London – the philosopher who tries to mine fixed identities as a means of control?
Ariodante reappears from the pit for “Numi, lasciarmi vivere”, now in a wrestling mask, with his shirt open over a low-cut bodice that pushes the body of the female singer into view. But in between the walk with that mask (obscuring their face), the bodice and the stance, this was the one moment where gender, in the figure of Ariodante, suddenly disintegrated into an individual physical presence not confined by those borders.
Interestingly (and logically) here, Ariodante was angry at Dalinda (just as Polinesso earlier, he nearly chokes her) for endangering Ginevra and sending him over the edge (well, he could have just *asked* Ginevra about everything. *cough*), and Dalinda sheds another shell and is once more willing to reinvent herself in the wrestling arena, in perhaps the most garish fighter outfit of the evening, underpants in flame design in yellow and violet.
“Dover, giustizia”, for a newly reintegrated Polinesso – now that the King needs him to maintain his social role – turns out to be Thompson’s best aria of the evening, carrying well, with a stylish take on the ornamentation, and strong delivery without the need to push.
Another strong visual then is Ginevra’s “Io to bacio”, sung from an underground dungeon underneath the wrestling ring, with barely her head visible. The King has to lie on his stomach on the floor to be able to reach into this pit with his arm, while above them, Polinesso walks the arena and ponders his victory because up next is an actual, if very brief, wresting match, with Lurcanio and Polinesso walking up with face masks, striking poses, showing off their outfits, and Odoardo as the referee calling them into the ring. And Lurcanio actually gets to decide the match by climbing the ring ropes in a classic theatrical move and pouncing on Polinesso.
Lurcanio then tends to an ailing – I didn’t get why he is injured and weak here – Ariodante for “Dopo notte”, which was, again, sung in part lying on the floor. The joy remains muted: With how the story is told here, from a detached distance that disqualifies most of the happenings of first part as mere ‘poses’, there is no deeper audience involvement in the plotlines, and Ariodante’s relationship with Ginevra seems as arbitrary as anything else.
Lurcanio and Dalinda, during their reconciliatory duet, deliver another regie plot point in dressing up in 18th century robes and gestures during the number: confining themselves to socially acceptable emotions turns them into Rousseau-ian (gendered) “identities” that are separated from the space of possibility that theatre offers.
In the last entrance, everyone is suddenly wearing 18th century garb. Only Ginevra is lying at the edge of the wrestling ring, marked by how she has been treated. And while she and Ariodante do reconcile for “Bramo aver mille cori” (they do get to kiss and make up in a scene removed from posing), Ginevra remains an outsider now, impassive as Ariodante gently dresses her in an 18th century costume (minus the skirt, thus keeping the constructedness of that ‘identity’ on display) to fit in with the rest of them.
The final ballet sequence has Polinesso condemning theatre with Rousseau, while the cast, again, leaves the 18th century gesture code and dances and sings in denial, only to reintegrate Polinesso for the final choir that is directed out at the audience.
— Is theatre the impossible utopia we need to survive the even more impossible construction of modern identity? This evening seems to answer that with ‘yes’.