OPERA / A welcome in every valley: Stephen Walsh on WNO's touring version of Handel's Ariodante in Cardiff

David Alden's camp-surreal staging of Handel's Ariodante, which reached Welsh National Opera in Cardiff on Thursday, is billed as a co-production with English National Opera (it was first seen at the London Coliseum in April last year). But it might be more accurate to call it a co- receptacle, into which the two companies have been able to pour their own ideas on performing Handel.

ENO did the piece in English, with sophisticated neo- authentic (for want of a better word) orchestral playing (under the period specialist Nicholas McGegan), vocal style of a clean, devastating brilliance, a female Ariodante certainly, but a strong male alto Polinesso - the reverse of Handel's casting at Covent Garden in January 1735.

WNO, true to recent form, sing it in Italian (using surtitles derived, for some reason, from a 1734 translation), with little deep attempt at authentic instrumental style but generous, if occasionally wayward, vocal ornament, and female leads throughout.

The Cardiff product is as yet the stiffer of the two, but it should relax with time; as for the work, it ought to be a hit in the spiritual home of Messiah (there are plenty of foretastes). But perhaps that home is a shade too spiritual.

As much as any other work by Handel, Ariodante is a stunning vocal circus. The title role, in particular, has one enormous aria after another - a test not only of style and technique, but of sheer stamina as well. The mezzo-soprano Della Jones's performance is a triumph of method and artistry over an instrument that sometimes, it must be said, rebels - her unrelenting final number, 'Dopo notte', was delivered almost literally on a breath and a prayer, and yet, in purely technico-musical terms, it was immaculate.

No doubt the sword and buckler are not, these days, particularly her style. Yet the beautiful (and extremely long) 'Scherza infida', which Alden has her sing while sliding gently down the outside of a pre-Wellsian space-ship, remained dignified, expressive and controlled throughout.

Felicity Palmer's Polinesso is no less in control, and raises fewer vocal problems. Consciously or unconsciously, she styles her singing towards a suppositious castrato brilliance, while hitting off the duke's sensual ruthlessness with precision. This is a marvellous, chilling musical portrait.

Also vivid and touching are Alwyn Mellor's Ginevra and Susannah Waters' Dalinda - a disturbing image of sexual self- abasement. As for the real men (to use John Ford language), they get short shrift in Handel; but Umberto Chiummo's King and Gregory Cross's Lurcanio both excel in a not always helpful environment.

Marc Minkowski conducts with much (perhaps too much) vitality, now and then in full reflected view thanks to Ian McNeil's shiny plastic front- drop. But the orchestral playing needs work; so far it is untidy and sometimes inaccurate, with more pace than rhythm. Under-rehearsal? One would hate to think so. But Handel isn't a doddle for the orchestra, whatever they may say in the Valleys.

Final performance at Cardiff New Theatre, 6.30pm tonight (booking: 0222 394844), then on tour to Birmingham Hippodrome 18 March (021-622 7486), Southampton Mayflower 14 April (0703 229771) and Bristol Hippodrome 21 April (0272 299444)

(Photograph omitted)

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