If there were a prize for “most tasteful depiction of just-barely-consensual anal sex in a Handel opera,” this production of Ariodante from the English National Opera in 1996 would win it hands down.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
This Ariodante is in English. I am not won over to the cause of opera in English. I am not even really on the fence. I strongly prefer operas in their original languages, partly for selfish reasons: I find it easier to get absorbed in the music when the words are not in English.
However, the text, and the fact that an English-speaker can readily understand the text as it’s being sung, does some interesting things in this version. The translation of the libretto from Italian is by Amanda Holden. Holden creates the odd cringeworthy rhyme (“refulgence” and “indulgence”) and sometimes the translation highlights the awkwardness of operatic dialogue, e.g. in Lurcanio’s mistaken reveal to the king in Act II that the unchaste lady responsible for Ariodante’s ‘death’ is his daughter: “It was a woman!” “I am astounded: who is she then, this woman?” “She is your daughter!” “What are you saying?” and so on. I am assuming that this is not Holden’s fault – I imagine it sounds very much like this in Italian. But if it had stayed in Italian, I wouldn’t have noticed.
But occasionally the text works in musical terms. In Ginevra’s Act II aria “I am a harlot . . .the pain and grief I suffer” / “A me impudica” several lines end on the word ‘death’ and the way this word ends in English with the soft th sort of works here, musically and interpretively. Or, the way in Ariodante’s Act III aria “Night of blindness” / “cieca notte,” when he repeats “guileful garments, insane delusion — all that’s good you have betrayed” there is some nice ambiguity as to whether the ‘you’ is the garments/delusion or whether ‘you’ is Dalinda, to whom (in this staging) part of this aria is addressed.
And I found that understanding the details of what is said makes something that is already interesting even more interesting: Dalinda. The more experience I have with Ariodante the more I think that Dalinda is the key to the drama. Both Ariodante and Ginevra are hampered in terms of character development by the fact that they are never really faced with a choice. They both have good intentions and pure motives, and they are unwaveringly good.
But Dalinda is a little different. It’s her willingness to impersonate Ginevra and, later, her revelation to Ariodante that it was she, not her mistress, that he saw with Polinesso, that form the two big turning points of this story.
The big question in this opera, in dramatic terms, is why on earth Dalinda goes along with Polinesso’s Ginevra-impersonation plan to begin with, since it’s clear that she cares for Ginevra and has no strong desire to harm her. Often one comes away with the impression that Dalinda is a bit of a dolt and that she has no conception that the rather bizarre and creepy thing Polinesso asks her to do might have unpleasant consequences. Or, that she is so blinded by love that she is rendered unable to say no to Polinesso. ‘Blinded by love’ is sort of the right phrase, but not quite – more on that in a minute. Before I get to that, though, I should say that what makes Dalinda interesting is her very weakness. She is a coward and at times a liar, and she is self-aware enough to be conscious of it. When you hear the text sung in English, it adds significant force to the characterization, e.g. in her duet with Lurcanio in Act III, where he insists “you loved [Polinesso]” and “you love him still” and she replies “I was betrayed” or “I regret it.” She avoids admitting what she felt, and tries to avoid blame for it. Similarly, at one point she says she cannot offer him hope “until you can believe that I was the victim of a dreadful deception” (emphasis mine). This is different from, say, “until you know that I was the victim” etc. Later, towards the end, there are several moments where Dalinda looks awful every time she even sees Lurcanio, so conscious is she of not being a particularly admirable human being.
And there’s also the sex. This production has a few moments of uninhibited raunchiness, but they make complete sense dramatically. Because Dalinda has a bit of kink to her. She is not just ‘blinded by love’ for Polinesso. It’s slightly more raw than that. Polinesso is a sadist, and Dalinda . . . well, Dalinda likes being dominated. She is very evidently into it when Polinesso shoves his tongue halfway down her throat during help me O lovely eyes / Spero per voi, si si. She also appears to be into both the pain and the penetration later on when we get the aforementioned prize-winning example of tasteful staging, during since deception / Se l’inganno sortisce felice. Dalinda isn’t blinded by love. Dalinda is overwhelmed by desire. Polinesso is perhaps the only character in the story who offers her what she wants.
There is also some music in this opera. More on that tomorrow.