Handel’s opera Ariodante is as old as 1516, when its story was first recorded, and as new as today.
Its theme, the linchpin of many operas, is timeless: a man being believed before a woman. “#MeToo, right?” Leigh Homan, the director of CU’s Eklund Opera Program, says. “This is so relevant.”
The next CU opera production, Ariodante will be presented April 26-29 in the intimate Music Theatre. Holman is the stage director, and Zachary Carrettin, director of the Boulder Bach Festival, will conduct the orchestra and a cast of CU students.
For a Baroque opera, the plot is fairly simple; a human drama with no divine intervention and no magic. The scheming Polinesso wants to marry princess Ginevra in order to gain the throne of Scotland, but Ginevra and her father, the King, are celebrating her engagement to Ariodante. With the help of Dalinda, a lady-in-waiting, Polinesso frames Ginevra for infidelity. The King cancels the wedding and renounces his daughter.
“It says a lot that they believe the male, who’s not in the royal family, over the princess,” Carretin says. But all is not lost: Ariodante, who is thought to have killed himself in despair, returns in time to implicate Polinesso. The latter is killed in a duel, and the opera ends with the villain vanquished and the true lovers wed.
To make the story more accessible to modern audiences, Holman based the production on Game of Thrones. “I came to [this concept] because my students talk about this show a lot,” Holman says. “Students were saying, ‘How can you be an opera director and not watch Game of Thrones? It’s so epic!’
“It’s like grand opera just to watch it. So Game of Thrones clicked for me. It’s relevant to [the students], it’s relevant to our audiences.”
This is not the first time Holman has based an old opera on a new television drama: two years ago she directed Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea in the style of House of Cards. This updating works because Baroque operas are based on classical literature and mythology, which express basic human themes: love, jealousy, honor, deception and lust for power. Those timeless themes also underlie the modern dramas.
Relevance is only one challenge of Baroque opera. Aspects of the musical style can be difficult for modern audiences and performers alike. For example, Ariodante, like most Baroque operatic heroes, was written for a castrato and will be sung by female sopranos. This challenges the audience to recognize the heroic characters, but even more so, it challenges the singers, as castratos could sing long phrases with great force.
Further, Baroque opera concentrates almost entirely on the expression of feelings rather than on action. The drama has a start-stop quality, with action happening quickly in recitative and then stopping completely for an emotional aria. In Ariodante, an attempted assassination happens in a matter of seconds, and then the characters pause to reflect on action that the audience could easily miss.
“We open that scene up in our production,” Holman says. “We try to make [the action] more apparent.” In order to do that, she and Carrettin go so far as to move some music around, and they have made other modificatiosn to serve the drama.
“There is freedom in Baroque music,” Carrettin says. “We’re all trying to be practical musicians who can tell the story in an inspired way.”
Rather than aiming for a strict notion of historical authenticity, he talks about “Real Authentic Practice” (RAP). “What’s more interesting to me than citing a treatise is to look at the RAP of the time,” he says. “Being practical is more important than a citation.”
Then there is the matter of style: Baroque music can be difficult for singers brought up in a different era. Among the subjects that Carrettin has discussed with the singers are ornamentation, the way arias are often based on gavottes, sicilianos, sarabands and other dances of the time, and how details in the music reveal character.
The role of Ariodante is particularly challenging, with arias that are spectacularly virtuosic, even for castrato roles, but Carrettin is not taking it easy on the singers. “Some of our tempos are faster than any of the Baroque productions that one can find,” he says. ”There are no concessions.”
The result? “Some of the most brilliant, expressive and virtuosic coloratura I’ve heard.”
It is the beauty of the music that keeps Handel popular today, more than 250 years after his death, and Ariodante, Holman and Carrettin believe, is as good as anything he wrote.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find better music in any Handel, anywhere,” Carrettin says. “It probably has a dozen of the greatest arias of the early 18th century in one opera.”
On the Bill: Ariodante by George Frideric Handel, performed by CU Eklund Opera Program. Zachary Carrettin, conductor; Leigh Holman, stage director. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 26-28; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 29, Music Theatre, Imig Music Building, 1020 18th St., Boulder.