SAN DIEGO — In 1966, New York City Opera mounted a momentous production of Handel's "Julius Caesar." It made a star of Beverly Sills, and it began a Handel revival that continues to this day. By now, nearly every self-respecting opera company makes room for Handel. Los Angeles Opera's "Julius Caesar" last season was a hit; San Francisco Opera stages the opera in June.
But until Saturday, San Diego Opera, which was formed in 1964, resisted all Handelian temptation. Its new production of "Ariodante" at Civic Theatre is the first professional Handel staging in San Diego, and the company seems to have approached it gingerly, reminding opera-goers in its publicity that there is more to Handel than "Messiah."
Indeed, there is. And "Ariodante," only one of dozens of great Handel scores, is hardly unknown. It has caught the attention of some of today's most impressive singers and directors. There are outstanding competing recordings of the complete opera with Lorraine Hunt and Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role. A theatrically compelling, even shocking, video of David Alden's English National Opera production is available on DVD.
The production in San Diego, by John Copley, was created by the Dallas Opera for exciting young singer Vivica Genaux, with New York City Opera as another co-producer. That alone should be attraction enough for San Diegans. An unknown when she made her debut with the company five years ago in Rossini's "The Italian in Algiers," she immediately won over just about everybody and has been back often. Now, the world knows the agile 34-year-old mezzo-soprano as a rising star. Her singing Saturday was spectacular. With nearly as impressive performances from two sopranos, Rosemary Joshua and Christine Brandes, this was a wonderful evening for female voices.
But for every right in its "Ariodante," San Diego found a corresponding wrong. The production almost willfully ignores the dramatic possibilities in both a theatrically able cast and the opera itself.
Handel's tale is of the love between the Scottish princess Ginevra and the knight Ariodante. The King approves the marriage and of Ariodante as successor to the throne. But the lovers are self-involved, immature. They are tested by jealousy when an Iago-like schemer, Polinesso, deceives Ariodante, which leads to Ariodante's suicide attempt and Ginevra's madness. A happy ending comes about less through Polinesso's defeat than it does through painful self-searching. Ginevra's passage from frivolous beauty to wise woman is portrayed in powerfully expressive arias, as is Ariodante's passage from superficial youth to responsible leader.
Copley's staging is minimalist historical costume pageant. Against John Conklin's set of movable marble walls and illuminated screen with images of sea and sky, characters in Michael Stennett's sumptuously draped costumes assume stock gestures more or less in the antiquated style of Handel's time. This is theater not so much historically correct as casting a knowing glance back at history, in the process distancing us from direct, affecting, potentially devastating drama.
Nor is Handel trusted. One of the reasons Handel's operas have caught on has been that they are now seen as more than mere opportunities for vocal display. They are long, and the succession of ornamental arias can seem deadly on stage. But they also give the modern director the luxury of time in which to explore deeply a character's emotions and motivations.
San Diego's "Ariodante" did just the opposite. The score was streamlined in places, and sometimes the most astonishing places. Removed from the end of the second act, for instance, was the metaphorical ballet in which Ginevra descends into madness and Handel radically brings the curtain down following a recitative, leaving the audience in musical suspension.
Instead, madness was represented by a couple of horses' heads descending on the stage.
Musically, the performance followed some aspects of period practice, to both good and bad effect. The orchestra mimicked well the sounds of Baroque instruments, and the Irish conductor, Kenneth Montgomery, chose the bracing tempos that modern scholarship favors.
But his attention seemed more directed to the pit than the stage; some tempos were so fast that singers were forced to drop all pretense of acting to concentrate on their impossible florid vocal acrobatics.
Still, Genaux was a thrilling, vocally triumphant Ariodante. Joshua offered a gorgeously nuanced Ginevra. Brandes demonstrated a powerful capacity for outrage as Dalinda, Ginevra's maid, who is seduced by Polinesso. Countertenor David Walker, however, has an unfinished technique, and it was hard for much malice to surface in his Polinesso when he spent so much effort simply trying to keep up with the conductor (however well he pranced about the stage). Tenor Bruce Fowler (Ariodante's brother Lurcanio) was hard-pressed as well. Julien Robbins was the moderately sonorous King.
The chorus had a very small part but struggled nonetheless in its rush to the finish.
"Ariodante" continues Tuesday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Feb. 17 at 2 p.m., $33-$107, Civic Theatre, San Diego (619) 570-1100.