‘With jewels and adornments’, Handel’s ‘Ariodante’ returns to Israeli Opera

When the role of Ariodante was first performed, it was done by a castrato named Giovanni Carestini.

 HANDEL’S ‘Ariodante’ comes to the Israeli Opera. (photo credit: Wiener Staatsoper Michael Pöhn)
HANDEL’S ‘Ariodante’ comes to the Israeli Opera.
(photo credit: Wiener Staatsoper Michael Pöhn)

A poor woman serves a rich woman who delights in her own reflection. “With jewels and adornments, make me beautiful,” Ginevra (Daniela Skorka) sings. Her maid, Dalinda (Hila Fahima Ruschin), is both overjoyed for her mistress, who is loved by the noble Ariodante (Cecelia Hall), and forlorn.

The man who loves her, Lurcanio (Ed Lyon), is a dolt. Unexpectedly, Polinesso (Nicholas Tamagna), a charming high-born man who was rejected by her mistress, tells her so many lovely things. “Spero per voi, si si,” he croons. “I hope for you, yes, yes, beautiful eyes this day heal my wounds.” He asks her to betray her mistress. Will she?

These are the bare bones of Handel’s magnificent Ariodante, a crowd-pleasing opera that was all the rage when it was first performed in 1735, sank into obscurity for centuries and now returns in full force to the Israeli Opera under one of the finest interpreters of Baroque music today, conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi, in his debut performance here.

When the role of Ariodante was first performed, it was done by a castrato named Giovanni Carestini. Handel, who was a talented composer and a shrewd businessman, knew that a very masculine-looking performer who sings with a delicate voice would be an attraction.

In our own times, the role was played by Anne Sofie von Otter in a stunning 1997 performance under conductor Marc Minkowski. When COVID-19 struck, Chen Reiss played Ginevra at the Royal Opera House in a performance streamed online to those unable to leave the house during the pandemic. Before that, she performed it alongside Fahima Ruschin in the 2018 Vienna Opera production, which is now being revived.

Those confronted with harsh times might be comforted by “Dopo notte.” One of the most uplifting arias in Ariodante, it speaks of hope. “After a night so bleak and foreboding,” sings the noble lover, “the sun shines forth in the heavens.” This is also an aria famous for how it allows the artist to present her coloratura technique. Putting unique emotional tones to each moment in which we hear how a young man was brought back from the edge of destruction. Opera aficionados look forward to hearing Hall, who also makes her Israeli debut, perform this gem of an aria.

When director David McVicar considered the relationship between the two women, mistress and servant, he decided they would be separated by social class. “For Ginevra, everything comes easily,” Fahima Ruschin told The Jerusalem Post, “while everything is set up against Dalinda, who survives in spite of everything.”

“This is what I love most about her,” she shared, “she is the victim of a harsh reality, of abuse and exploitation, yet, despite all she goes through, she is met with compassion and is forgiven.”

"Everything is set up against Dalinda, who survives in spite of everything.”

Fahima Ruschin

Polinesso is such a toxic man, he is included in a special 2013 album by Xavier Sabata titled Handel Bad Guys. This ability to reimagine Baroque characters as contemporary and in the context of a grand-scale production is quite recent. There used to be a time Baroque music was kept small.

A different Handel opera prior

IN 2014, Niv Hoffman oversaw the production of a different Handel opera, Alcina, in a fairly small-scale production lauded for its musical excellence. Now, nearly a decade later, he was trusted to bring over McVicar’s intense, larger-than-life vision filled with landscapes and Scottish castles.

Seeking a meaningful way to help today’s audience reconnect to these works and to do it right, McVicar recreated a Scottish court with lavish costumes. With plaid tartans, a diadem on the head of the Scottish monarch and a roasted stag to feast on, as opera writer Jonathan Sutherland noted when he described the Vienna Opera production.

“I’m the black sheep in this production,” Fahima Ruschin confided, “the facial make-up I wear is heavy, in dark greyish colors. I have arias of vengeance, of madness. Dalinda nearly loses her sanity over this ordeal.”

“Yet my inner reality,” she added, “is of a caring person who is soft and emphatic to others.”

When he believes fate has cheated him out of being loved, Ariodante nearly destroys himself. When discussing why opera these days does not produce divas like Maria Callas and asking what is the nature of the love between audience and artist, Fahima Ruschin noted times have changed.

“Our society is heading towards a more egalitarian place,” she noted.

“Callas was a prima donna, everyone worshiped her. This has a very problematic aspect because at the end of the day, the singers leave the stage and return home. In our own cultural moment, I believe we seek a healthy sort of authenticity.”

With a Mozart-like emphasis on musical complexity and an almost Wagnerian length, the healthy authenticity in this interpolation of the 18th-century opera includes the profound impact of being used by a deceiving lover.

Yes, there is a sort of happy end and forgiveness is offered. Yet “this is not a Disney sort of ending,” Fahima Ruschin pointed out. “Dalinda ends the opera with some open-ended questions.”

Ariodante at the Israeli Opera, 19 Shaul HaMelech Blvd., Tel Aviv, will premiere on Sunday, February 19, at 7:30 p.m. and is scheduled to run for three more shows: Tuesday, February 21, at 8 p.m., Thursday, February 23, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, February 25, at 8 p.m. NIS 195-445 per ticket. 

Patrons are invited to attend a free 30-minute lecture about the opera to take place one hour before each show. For more information and tickets, call 03-692-7777. Sung in Italian with English and Hebrew titles.