Chicago’s main opera theater has a solid track record of presenting the long-neglected works of George Frideric Handel. Mostly forgotten after Handel’s own times, these began to emerge in a trickle of new productions in the 1970s. Over the past twenty years, they have burst forth in a veritable flood of Baroque torrents. Chicago has presented eight of Handel’s forty-two operas, mostly with success, and now turns to Ariodante, one of his later works in the genre. Ariodante premiered in 1735, a decade after the seminal Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare in Egitto) and only a few years before Handel abandoned opera for oratorio, during a frenetic period of composition that also produced Alcina and Orlando, operas that have again become reasonably well known.

The plot, adapted from an episode in the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso, is a characteristically convoluted Handelian romance. Ginevra, the King of Scotland’s daughter, is in love with the noble Ariodante but is coveted by the wicked Polinesso. Polinesso, meanwhile, is adored by Dalinda, whose affection (and, in this production, body) he abuses to convince Ariodante that Ginevra was unfaithful to him on their wedding night. Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio, hopes to spur him to take vengeance, but the devastated Ariodante instead throws himself off a cliff into the sea—and survives. Lesser characters of varying affections flit in and out of the action to reveal the truth. Polinesso is killed in a duel over Ginevra’s disputed honor, and the couple is united in eternal bliss—or not. In Richard Jones’s reimagining of the opera, the happy ending is abandoned in favor of Ginevra’s neurotic flight from the situation. In a moment of depressing self-realization, she decides cannot stomach Ariodante’s doubts about her fidelity, packs a bag, and leaves while the rest of the cast sings for joy.

The cast of  Ariodante. Photo: Cory Weaver.

How can a Renaissance damsel in distress become a hitchhiker who wants to do it all on her own? Jones seems to have thought it a swell idea to update the opera’s setting to a bleak lower-class 1970s island community in Scotland full of dowdy people in tartan sweaters and dresses (the sets and costumes are by a British designer known only as ULTZ; it is unclear whether this is a name spelled in capital letters or an acronym). His apparent purpose is to convince us that Ginevra is trapped in a patriarchal society in which the male characters control her actions and reactions to the point of emotional paralysis. Ariodante’s honorable intentions are hard to sully in this idiom, but Polinesso’s villainy is adequately conveyed by presenting him as a charlatan minister who alternates between clerical garb and the scrappy denim of an urban lowlife.

The tender Handelian emotions, so present in the music, seem woefully out of place in the midst of stark Bible-thumping Presbyterians.

There is no room for the true love or sincere forgiveness expressed so artfully by the music. The tender Handelian emotions, so present in the music, seem woefully out of place in the midst of stark Bible-thumping Presbyterians. Another director might use an update to try to tell us that the lofty sentiments of Renaissance heroes can be shared by quite ordinary people, but the unintentional message that comes across here is that our society is so fractured that the margin for resolving misunderstanding has become razor thin, if it exists at all. Even the opera’s sublime dances, a feature of what is supposed to be a royal court, are foregone in favor of puppet shows in which the local populace portrays the likely fates of the characters, most of which are dismal. The ultimate outcome of Ginevra’s flight, for example, is foreshadowed as her descent into life as a pole-dancing stripper in a red-light district. There is no reflective pause to consider whether marriage to the repentant Ariodante would really be so bad after all.

Iestyn Davies, Josh Lovell, Kyle Ketelsen, and Brenda Rae. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Harry Bicket is arguably the most talented conductor of Handel on the podium today. He led a majestic performance, with arching strings stirring real feeling through four hours of music that flew by.

Fortunately, the music takes us out of this dramatic dead end. Harry Bicket, the artistic director of the sublime English Concert, is arguably the most talented conductor of Handel on the podium today. He led a majestic performance, with arching strings stirring real feeling through four hours of music that flew by. The British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote returned in the title role, just after her masterly performance here a few weeks ago as Prince Charming in Massenet’s Cendrillon. She missed Ariodante’s opening night due to illness, but as the run continued, her title character was another triumph. Gorgeous arpeggiated singing resounded through the part’s unusually affecting arias, which radiated a much wider range of emotion than one usually encounters in Handel. The seminal twelve-minute “Scherza infida,” a virtuoso meditation on sexual betrayal, unfolded gloriously. In her Lyric Opera debut, the rising American soprano Brenda Rae delivered a light and innocent Ginevra, whose arias nearly match Ariodante’s in expressive power. Kyle Ketelsen’s King of Scotland was stentorian and authoritative. Everyone loves a villain, and Polinesso came to life in the alluringly clarion tones of the extraordinarily talented countertenor Iestyn Davies, who has made a specialty of Handel parts. In technical execution he easily rivaled Coote’s quality of performance. The soprano Heidi Stober performed well as his victim, Dalinda. This immensely talented ensemble deserved a better production.