By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer
George Frideric Handel's Ariodante, the neglected musical masterpiece, has hit the stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Do you need a quick introduction or a refresher course on some key concepts and facts? Here are 10 Things to Know before you go!
1. ahead of its time
We do not tend to think of 18th-century composers as being especially adept at illustrating the inner workings of human psychology. Yet Handel was ahead of his time in this regard, consistently writing music that is precise in depicting characters’ psychological states, while offering credible arcs of emotional truth and character development. Indeed, the ongoing rediscovery and prominence of Handel’s works is attributable, at least in part, to contemporary artists’ realization of how truly modern and psychologically astute a composer he is.
Ariodante premiered in London on January 8, 1735. While initially successful, the opera fell into obscurity for almost 200 years. Since its revival in the 1970s it has come to be considered one of Handel’s finest works. This new production—created together with Festival d'Aix en Provence, Dutch National Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago—is also the COC premiere of Ariodante.
Prince Ariodante is poised to marry Ginevra, the daughter of the King of Scotland. But Polinesso—a charming yet odious figure that has ingratiated himself with the King—convinces Ariodante that Ginevra has been unfaithful. Polinesso manipulates the entire community into ruthless mob action against Ginevra, humiliating her and pushing her to the brink of insanity.
Handel is one of the best-known composers of the Baroque era, a period in which contemporary dance forms heavily influenced the structure, composition, and the feeling of music (you’ll notice that the end of each Act in Ariodante is essentially an extended dance number, which this production uses to stage a play-within-a-play using puppetry). For a prime example of Handelian coloratura (a passage of singing when one vowel or word is stretched out over many notes), listen for Ginevra’s (soprano Jane Archibald in our production) lilting, “Volate, amori,” an aria describing the celebratory flight of two cupids. Not only does the singer “fly” through numerous notes on the word “volate” (fly), Handel’s orchestration musically reaffirms the image with oboes and violins that mimic the beating of wings with quick runs of 16th notes. Another highlight is “Scherza infida,” probably the most touching and lyrically beautiful aria in the entire opera—it’s sung by Ariodante (mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in our production) and follows the A-B-A form that is so characteristic of the Baroque period, in which the opening section (A) is returned to again after a middle section (B), but repeated with the addition of more and more elaborate vocal embellishment.
Above: Alice Coote as Ariodante and Owen McCausland as Lurcanio in the COC's 2016 production of Ariodante
Acclaimed English director Richard Jones (last with the COC for Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades in 2002), sets Ariodante in the early 1970s, on one of the Scottish isles. The seaside community is a male-dominated one with a moral centre based in Calvinism. (The religiosity of the isle is established in the overture with a mime play of a sermon being delivered.) In this context, Jones and his creative team envision Ariodante as a story of intolerance and judgment, a story of a young woman who is punished by a male community for her sense of imagination.
The set design by Olivier Award-winning British designer ULTZ is a cross-section of a building, with three distinct rooms including a kitchen, a main room, and Ginevra’s bedroom. The walls between these rooms are not physically present, but instead suggested by thick white lines painted on the floor and ceiling of the set. This has the effect of inviting the audience to take up an active role in the collective act of theatrical creation, with every person in the theatre becoming complicit in the imaginative integrity of the set’s architecture, and, by extension, the emotional truth of the opera itself.
The costume design—also by ULTZ—emphasizes that we’re observing an environment of labour, a community reliant on fishing and wool industries. As such there’s similar costuming for men and women: workclothes that privilege functionality and durability as opposed to ornament or self-expression. Ginevra, however, is distinct in this regard with her floral dresses and splash of colour marking her out from the rest of the community.
Each prop, costume, and element of set design in Ariodante has an irreplaceable role in the unfolding drama, including the knives hanging in the central room, the suitcase in the closet, Ginevra’s hairbrush, the Bibles arrayed in the back of the main room, the bottles of whisky hidden throughout, etc. Each object and gesture is thus imbued with a dramatic energy and potential storytelling weight.
COC Music Director Johannes Debus makes his Handel debut with Ariodante, saying in the lead up to the premiere: “This whole cosmos of Baroque music really fascinates me and Handel, in particular, stands out as the one with the greatest melodic inventions, maybe, ever."
Handel’s music requires extraordinarily agile and expressive singers, and the COC has gathered a world-class cast, including our very own Ensemble Studio graduates soprano Ambur Braid (Dalinda) and tenor Owen McCausland (Lurcanio), as well as current Ensemble Studio tenor Aaron Sheppard (Odoardo), with some of the world’s leading Baroque artists in lead roles:
Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote
Recently with the COC: Ariadne auf Naxos (2011) and Hercules (2014)
Her performances are described as “breathtaking in [their] sheer conviction and subtlety of perception” (The Times) and her voice as “beautiful, to be sure, but, more importantly, it thrills you to the marrow" (The Daily Telegraph).
Soprano Jane Archibald
Recently with the COC: Don Giovanni (2015), Semele at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (2015), and The Marriage of Figaro (2016).
“Unbelievable mastery of singing, controlled with apparent ease… combined with a remarkable dramatic presence” (Le Figaro, FR).
Mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan
Renowned Armenian mezzo making her Canadian debut
The New York Times has called her a "revelation."
Ariodante is running from October 16 to November 4. For more information and tickets, please click here.
Photo credits (top - bottom): Jane Archibald as Ginevra in Ariodante (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper; Alice Coote as Ariodante and Owen McCausland as Lurcanio in Ariodante (COC, 2016), photo: Chris Hutcheson
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What she's doing with us: British lyric mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is playing the title role in Handel's Ariodante with us this fall. Although this opera is not performed as much as other Handel works, Alice is no stranger to this role and we are excited to have her back on our stage! For more information on our production of Ariodante, click here.
Where you might have seen her: Alice has been seen on our stage twice before. Her COC debut came in 2011 when she played the role of the Composer in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. In 2014 she returned to sing the role of Dejanira in Handel's Hercules to great acclaim. Beyond the COC's stage she has a wildly successful career, well established as one of the most sought-after singers in the world. The Royal Opera House, the English National Opera, Opéra de Paris, the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago are just a handful of the many companies with which Alice has performed.
Above: Alice Coote as Dejanira and Lucy Crowe as Iole in a scene from the COC's 2014 production of Hercules
Reviews and interviews: Alice has been widely acclaimed for her lyrical mezzo-soprano tone and superb acting. Here a few review highlights for her portrayal of Dejanira in our 2014 production of Hercules:
"Alice Coote is equally impressive, capable of turning from the woman wronged to the instrument of vengeance in the course of a single scene, with her darker mezzo tones almost reaching contralto resonance as she plumbs the emotional depths as well."
— Richard Ouzounian, The Toronto Star
"Alice Coote was mesmerizing as Dejanira... At times joyous, fearful, jealous, revengeful, guilt-stricken, Coote used her glorious and controlled mezzo-soprano voice to completely draw us into the psychological world of her complex character."
— Robert Harris, The Globe and Mail
Alice has also proven to be a dream to interview, as is seen in the video below by Schmopera from 2014 in the Four Season Centre for the Performing Arts:
Hard hitting questions:
1. What was the first music concert you attended?
Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler's Fifth Symphony at the BBC Proms
2. What book have you read again and again?
Charley by Joan G. Robinson
3. What performer would you drop everything for to see?
4. What is your favourite must-see TV show?
5. What is your preferred pre- or post-show meal?
I don't like to eat just before or after a show—I am too heightened or drained in senses and emotions
6. Do you prefer pants or skirts?
7. Les Misérables, Rent or Hamilton?
The Sound of Music
8. What is the worst job you've ever had?
9. Who would play you in a movie of our life?
10. One piece of advice for Ariodante?
DO NOT TRUST POLINESSO
Photo credits (top - bottom): Alice Coote, photo: Ben Ealovega; Alice Coote as Dejanira and Lucy Crowe as Iole in Hercules (COC, 2014), photo: Michael Cooper
By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, the iconic bel canto masterpiece is set to hit the stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and kick off the 2016/2017 season. Do you need a quick introduction or a refresher course on some key concepts? Here are 10 Things to Know before you go!
1. PLOT IN A MINUTE
Norma, a druid priestess, is torn between love for those she leads, and a secret passion for Pollione, the Roman enemy of her people. She has two children with him in secret before discovering he has begun an affair with her younger acolyte, Adalgisa. Norma forgives Pollione in the end, and he joins her in her fiery destiny.
Norma brings together all the great dramatic themes that dominate Italian opera: love (Norma loves her enemy, Pollione, head of occupying Roman forces); jealousy (the love triangle between Norma, Pollione and Adalgisa); friendship (Norma and Adalgisa maintain their friendship despite being in love with same man); conflict between nations (Druids versus Romans), motherhood (Norma has two children by the faithless Pollione) and finally, sacrifice (Norma commits suicide, wracked by guilt for having betrayed her people).
Bellini pioneered canto declamato (declamatory singing)—a style of vocal writing that kept the orchestral accompaniment relatively simple, allowing the audience to pay greater attention to the relationship between text and melody. This was in opposition to his Italian bel canto predecessor Rossini who opted for a more florid style referred to as canto fiorito (flowery singing).
Norma may be best known for the restrained, languid aria “Casta diva,” but it is also packed with searing drama, nowhere more so than the opening of Act II where Norma contemplates killing her children in order to seek revenge against their father, Pollione, who has abandoned her for her best friend, Adalgisa.
In the period directly preceding the bel canto era (Norma premiered in 1831), opera was dominated by the castrati, male sopranos worshipped for their extraordinary vocal technique. They were the stars of late 18th-century opera seria where vocal virtuosity took precedence over dramatic values. By Bellini’s time however, female singers became the new stars and roles like Norma set a new standard, placing equal value on dramatic veracity as well as ironclad vocal technique.
From the start, the great Normas of operatic history have all been great singing actresses: mistresses of astonishing vocal technique and outstanding personalities. The first Norma, soprano Giuditta Pasta, was lauded for her power to combine all the “several excellences of the drama, the opera and the ballet; mind, voice and action” into a complete performance. In the 20th-century, the gold standard Norma was Greek-American soprano, Maria Callas who in 1958 made headlines when she notoriously walked out of a performance of Norma in Rome, despite the presence of the Italian president.
Above: Sondra Radvanovsky in a scene from the COC's production of Norma (San Francisco Opera, 2014)
As was customary in Bellini’s time, opera roles were tailor-made to suit the talents of their original interpreters. Tenor Domenico Donzelli, the first Pollione, was very specific about his attributes when he wrote to Bellini: “The range of my voice then is nearly 2 octaves, from low D to top C. Chest voice to G and it is in this range that I can declaim with vigor and sustain all the force of the declamation. From G to high C, I can use a falsetto that, employed with art and with power, provides a means of decoration. I have a fair amount of agility, but find descents much easier than ascents.” Bellini took this to heart, filling the role with full-voiced G’s, just one “decorative” high C, and runs that mainly took the tenor’s voice downward.
Bellini’s signature style prioritized the text, allowing it to dictate how he shaped the vocal line. This school of composition was referred to as melodramma—not in today’s pejorative, “soap opera” meaning of the term, but rather, to signify “drama as revealed in melody” and to distinguish it from the stiffer, formalized opera seria of the 18th century.
A tragic clash of cultures is central to Norma in which imperialistic Roman forces occupy the Druids in Gaul. Contemporary Italian audiences would have recognized in this conflict their own struggle to oust their Austrian oppressors who at the time were sending in troops to put down revolts against their domination.
The team of Bellini and his librettist, Felice Romani, was one of the great collaborations of operatic history. The composer simply refused to take on commissions unless Romani was on board to write the text. Bellini’s devotion bordered on obsessiveness as he recounted in his later years: “It seemed impossible for me to exist without you…write for me alone; only for me, for your Bellini”.
Above: Vincenzo Bellini (left) and Felice Romani (right)
Norma is running from October 6 to November 5. For more information and tickets, please click here.
Photo credits (top - bottom): a scene from Norma (San Francisco Opera, 2014), photo: Cory Weaver; Sondra Radvanovsky (far right) as Norma in Norma (San Francisco Opera, 2014), photo: Cory Weaver
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001