Last night I went to see Joyce DiDonato in a concert of Handel’s Ariodante at Versailles.
Well, okay, that was originally why I went, but when I got there it turned out that Ms. DiDonato was ill and at the last minute Sarah Connolly had jumped in–and honestly, if it had originally been advertised as “Sarah Connolly in Ariodante,” I would have been there anyway. Because first of all, Sarah Connolly is a goddess (who looks so much like a dude when she does pants roles that it’s almost unnerving), and second of all, I’m singing an aria from Ariodante at the moment and I really wanted to get a feel for the whole piece. My seat was about as close to the singers as you can possibly get without being ON the stage. I was practically at eye-level with them, all the way on the left side; when Sarah Connolly wasn’t singing, she was sitting about ten feet from me. I was like, ahhhhhhh! It’s very odd to me, because that was not an outlandishly expensive ticket, and except that I was looking at the singers’ profiles when they were singing, and a couple of acoustical issues when they turned away from me, it was a perfect seat. (Though quite frankly, by the end of nearly four hours of Handel, every seat in the house is uncomfortable.)
Anyway. It’s a really good thing that I had already done my homework on the Ariodante front when I learned one of Dalinda’s arias a few years ago, because I didn’t want to spend 10 euro on a program and there were no supertitles, nor is my Italian quite good enough to follow the story without already knowing what’s going on (though I understood plenty!). So here’s the gist. Ariodante loves Ginevra, the princess, and they decide to get married; her father, known only as Il Re, loves him as much as his daughter does, and pretty much promises him the throne. So Ariodante’s got it made, but the evil Polinesso loves Ginevra too, and he convinces Dalinda, Ginevra’s maid, who is in love with him (Polinesso), to discredit Ginevra so that Ariodante will break off the engagement and leave the kingdom in despair. So they pull a Much Ado About Nothing: they dress Dalinda up in Ginevra’s clothes and show Ariodante “Ginevra” going off for a tryst with Polinesso. Ariodante disappears in despair, and Polinesso spreads a rumor that he’s dead, so that he (Polinesso) can slip into his place and be Ginevra’s protector/husband/heir to the throne. And then there’s a tenor, Lurcanio, who decides to avenge Ariodante because…well, honestly I don’t know why, probably they’re BFF (ETA: hold the phone, Wikipedia says they’re brothers). Anyway, Lurcanio tells the king about “Ginevra”‘s indiscretion (Lurcanio is still laboring under the misapprehension that it really was Ginevra there that night), and the king goes ahead and disinherits her. But somehow it all works out, because Dalinda runs into Ariodante, who is decidedly not dead. Ariodante returns, claims his bride and the throne, and Lurcanio runs Polinesso through with a sword–or nothing, if you’re doing a concert version–and marries Dalinda (did I mention Lurcanio was in love with Dalinda?).
So there you go. Really, it boils down to a simple formula:
LURCANIO ❤ DALINDA ❤ POLINESSO ❤ GINEVRA ❤ ARIODANTE
Anyway. The singing. Sarah Connolly was stellar the whole time. Relaxed, effortless, with a gorgeous warm tone and natural acting. Plus she wore a long coat and a frilly collar and cuffs, à la John Adams in 1776, and she was the only woman onstage who looked like she had washed her hair before the concert. I thought the tenor, Nicholas Phan, was really excellent as well. He had some vocal tics that didn’t thrill me, but he was adorable and a strong presence, and he held the audience in the palm of his hand with his softer singing. (He sings in Chicago a lot as well, so yayyyyy, Chicago!)
The others…well…I’m wondering if I might not have enjoyed them as much as the audience seemed to if I hadn’t been sitting up close. I started out really liking the mezzo-soprano who played Polinesso (and now I’m listening to her on Spotify, and it’s really an extraordinary instrument), but she made really strange faces, and walked all over the place while she was singing–but not intentionally. I’ve found that intention is huge in singing; you have to make sure that your gestures are deliberate, because otherwise you get stuck with habits, like you can’t sing a long run without jerking your torso around. She also was kind of hard on her voice, which I know is hard to avoid when you’re in front of an audience, but by the end of it I was nervous for her, and she was using a lot of chest voice to get the lower notes to speak.
Dalinda was okay, though I can’t say I liked the way she played it–they also cut the aria that makes it clear that she’s in love with Polinesso (the one I happen to be working on right now), so she had a harder job of convincing the audience of her motivations. I always thought, when I was studying the opera a little a few years ago, that the reason Dalinda goes with Polinesso is not because she wants in on his evil plot, but because she loves him and would do anything for him (and Polinesso realizes that and uses it to his advantage). It’s like in Much Ado–Margaret doesn’t know about Don John’s sinister plans, and in the throes of passion it doesn’t really bug her that what’s-his-face is calling her “Hero.” Wikipedia calls Dalinda “unwitting,” which I’d say is accurate. Anyway, I thought she was a little too Despina and not enough sincerity. I get the feeling that this is a piece that doesn’t work particularly well dramatically unless you absolutely believe in every character. I don’t even want Polinesso to be completely evil–he’s not a nice guy, and he does evil stuff, but it’s all driven by love for Ginevra. Anyway, back to Dalinda. Her singing was just okay, a little pushed, and during the recitative to “Neghittosi,” she definitely changed something and the violists sitting near the harpsichord were tittering–that aria was also an ungodly mess. And one last thing, Miss Dalinda the Opera Babe–I don’t care how slender you are, if you are an opera singer and you’re going to wear a shiny figure-hugging dress, for God’s sake, invest in some Spanx. It might sound stupid, but as soon as I notice panty lines I stop taking you seriously. This is something I learned in college, if not high school. You have an international career. Get on that.
Ahem. Anywho. The others were good, actually. The soprano singing Ginevra (who being a heavier woman knows the value of good shapewear–take note, Dalinda!) had a really glorious sound and some exquisite pianissimo high notes, and she and Sarah Connolly sounded stunning on their duets. A few of her high notes were a little pushed, but overall it was a splendid performance. And the baritone singing the king was working a little too hard for me to be comfortable watching him, but I liked his sound and his commitment to the role–he always walked back to his chair in character and stayed in character as long as he could. I thought he handled the scene in which the king reads a letter informing him of his daughter’s night with Polinesso with real sensitivity, and I believed every word. Well done, sir.
And the orchestra was stellar. Besides playing incredibly well, they were all just COOL. There was some really fun hair going on in the orchestra–several ponytails on the men, fun facial hair, a horn player who looked like Billy Connelly. The harpsichordist had an enormous beard: he looked a little like one of the scary old men in “The Roses of Success” in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I feel like you have to be a little cool in this day and age to focus on baroque music–they’re like the hippies of classical music. Lots of chamber music and independent studies and tree-hugging (okay, maybe not).
So that was last night. I got to Versailles a couple of hours early to give myself enough time to grab dinner (quiche Lorraine and an enormous chocolate sable cookie, so no nutrients whatsoever). As I was walking up to the palace, I ran into my friend James from Northwestern, who’s teaching English in Lyon. It was the most ridiculous small-world moment. I think I may try to meet up with him for a drink later to catch up. After the concert, I ran with the other Parisian audience members to catch the last train back to Paris, at midnight (god, it was a long opera–even with cuts!). The train only went as far as Invalides, and I was like, for real? I made an executive decision and got off at Pont de L’Alma, because despite having wandered around there and taken plenty of pictures, I still get turned around when I get off the train at Invalides; Pont de l’Alma is where I get off the train to go to the library, so I know the area quite well. By this point it was 12:30 AM, so I decided to get a taxi home. Stopped at an ATM for some cash (where of course it only gave me a 50 euro bill, which usually ends up being useless because people don’t want to break them), consulted my map and walked to the taxi stand at École Militaire, where three minutes later a very nice man in a very comfortable taxi pulled up and took me home.
It was kind of an epic evening, actually. And on that note: