There is nothing really obviously bizarre about this production. There is no nudity except for the odd breast among the dancers during the ‘Ginevra’s dream’ ballet sequence, and we are all kind of used to that sort of thing with opera by now. There are no puppets or lasers or gallons of stage blood or anything like that. There is not even any smoking, although Polinesso does lick the tip of his walking stick in a way that leaves very little to the imagination as far as symbolism goes.
It is certainly not a period production. Most of the action takes place in a large room with an opening in the back that looks out on mountains at night under a full moon. This opening has a column on one side, and not on the other. It also contains a small stage that is on the ‘outside’ of the opening, i.e. not in the room. People make entrances at several points via appearing on this stage and then either jumping or climbing down to the floor. The waves in Act III out of which Ariodante crawls are the familiar cork-screwy things, complete with stage-hand to manipulate them. (I was impressed by Garrett’s ability to simultaneously sing and slither over and around these when Dalinda enters before Ariodante rescues her.)
And the costumes are all over the place in terms of time period – everything from late-medieval armor for the final duel to Lurcanio’s ‘doughty Tudor’ look to Odoardo’s adorably foppish late seventeenth-century wig and beauty mark to Polinesso, who in terms of clothes negotiates that tricky boundary between Dangerous Liaisons and The Pirates of the Caribbean. Ginevra has a gauzy white wedding dress, and Dalinda has a dark blue flowy outfit that is either a dress or very loose trousers. The story takes place less in any specific point in the past than it does in a sort of dream world in which all manner of references and associations are jumbled together.
But I think that the thing about this production that might well produce visceral dislike if you are not really into regietheater is the way the dream sequence ballet and the final ballet/chorus are handled.
The ballet opens with ‘dream Ginevra’ on the little stage at the back. Dream Ginevra is about to fall forward, but is caught by her father, and what follows begins as a sweet father-daughter interaction but very quickly moves into the type of thing that is illegal in at least forty-eight states. Then it looks as if he tries to rape her. Polinesso appears, without his shirt, and offers her an apple on the point of his stick. There is some to-ing and fro-ing with the apple, and then with a lot of apples, and then Ginevra regains the apple she wants, and then — well, she sort of loses control of the apple. The point I think is that Ginevra perhaps has some fears relating to sex. And this is not unreasonable. Most of this opera is concerned with whether she’s doing it, and who, if anyone, she ought to be doing it with. Sex for Ginevra is consistently connected with who has power over her and whether/how she can resist if that power is wrongly exercised – hence her father’s presence in the dream. She may be ambivalent about marriage to Ariodante – and she may be ambivalent about Polinesso too. The staging suggests that Polinesso elicits a strong reaction of some kind in Ginevra, and whether it’s something she wants or not is an open question.
And then the members of the ballet appear, with more apples. There is much polishing of apples in this sequence, and some eating and spitting out of apples. And there is some deliberate ambiguity with gender as far as how the dancers are costumed. This was probably a little more transgressive in the 1990s than it is now. The dancers mirror Ginevra for a moment, and then they strip her and plunge her into a tub of water, where she remains. At this point ‘real’ Ginevra awakes.
Then there is the final ballet and chorus. I think Dalinda and Lurcanio’s reactions to the dancers’ appearance are entirely understandable. The chorus is off-stage; the dancers are silent. The words of the chorus are “let us applaud you, praise and reward you,” and the combination of this and the way it’s staged give an impression of utter creepiness. Ariodante and Ginevra look somewhere between stunned and horrified. During the “if innocence was part of every virtuous heart” section, Dalinda wanders through looking a bit shell-shocked and carrying Polinesso’s helmet, which she sets down before beginning to sob. Lurcanio comforts her.
What this scene does, and does fairly effectively, is to undercut one of the central premises of the opera as it’s written: that this is a morality tale and that there is some internal logic to it. The manner of the dancing and the dancers’ costumes are intended, I think, to suggest madness – the lack of rational connections between things. The last scene undercuts the assumption the drama makes that Ariodante and Ginevra’s trials meant anything. The only person in the final scene who seems to know what to feel is Dalinda, who is sobbing. Polinesso has just been killed; perhaps the idea is that without evil and/or nastiness in the world, the concept of being good is meaningless? Given how persistently Polinesso is identified with all things sexual (sticks, apples, lots of licking) there may be an implied connection here between good/bad, rationality/madness and sex, but the production doesn’t seem to be offering any particular take on this connection.