Classical: Ariodante Covent Garden Festival

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The Independent Culture
"Too hot for Handel" is the slogan touting Jilly Cooper's latest novel. I don't know how hot Cooper's fiction is, but the notion that Handelian passion is lukewarm proves obstinate. Think baroque, think heritage gift shop. In the right hands, Handel tells another story entirely, as David Alden proved with his 1993 ENO staging of Ariodante. Now, as part of the BOC Covent Garden Festival, the Early Opera Company (EOC) stages the opera in St Clement Danes, barely yards from ENO's back door.

EOC makes good use of the ENO translation (Amanda Holden) but comparisons stop there. EOC's very name already suggests an obstacle. Opera seria undoubtedly poses problems, but it needs to work for audiences accustomed to Verdi and Janacek, perhaps even to Beckett. If "early opera" is segregated, it risks losing the pulse of living theatre. Not that Sarah Alexander's production attempts to re-create baroque modes, but nor has it found a way to enact this, perhaps Handel's most impassioned theatre piece.

Church stagings are never easy, and economy is at a premium here. No dancers, for one thing, so no Furies preying on the delicate sensibilities of Ginevra as she confronts a double catastrophe: denunciation as a harlot by her father, the King of Scotland, and, or so she believes, betrayal by her beloved Ariodante. In the event, this becomes one of the production's most involving moments as Lucy Carter's lighting transforms Ginevra into a wax puppet at the mercy of the orchestral emotions swirling about her.

For the most part, though, school play naturalism is the order of the day. Richard Aylwin's set has a tree thrusting heavenwards, encased in glass that is both mirror and window through which the characters look into themselves. So far, so good, but there is little sense that the characters are doing more than striking poses. Joy unbounded? Hug yourself and grin inanely. A dark disturbance of the soul? Stare fixedly into the distance.

The musical rewards are greater, and might have been richer still with sturdier dramatic support. The cast is young and, with no counter-tenors, dominated by the women. Amanda Boyd's Ginevra might sound more at home in 19th-century repertoire, but there is genuine pathos in the voice. Of the two mezzos, Christine Rice as the villainous Polinesso is the most richly sonorous, but Louise Mott is the most comfortable with the music's furious elaborations. Her Ariodante seems drugged by the sheer musical effusion. Most touching of all is Jeni Bern's Dalinda, unwitting and perhaps witless engineer of the tragedy that so nearly engulfs the characters. Here, drama and music come closest to the desired union.

The orchestra, conducted from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn, runs to a comparatively generous 17 period instruments. There are some rocky moments from the winds, and Curnyn perhaps puts too much swoon in the slower passages, but there is real lift at fast tempos. If that lift could be got into the drama, we might glimpse Handel, our contemporary.

7pm tonight and tomorrow (0171-312 1992)