OPERA / Good and dirty: Nick Kimberley reviews David Alden's production of Handel's Ariodante for ENO

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WOODY ALLEN once said that sex was dirty, if you did it right. Opera is like that: honourable though they are, attempts to 'democratise' it simply domesticate its wilder tendencies. In my experience, no director plumbs opera's depths more successfully than David Alden, for whom opera is collective hallucination, with music the drug that unravels us. This offends both democrats and elitists. One camp views opera as mere entertainment, the other occupies the safe terrain of Culture with a capital 'K'.

Now Alden returns to the London Coliseum with a new production of Handel's Ariodante. The excesses of opera seria are usually decked out in feathers and flummery, disguising the fact that we don't know what to do with the idiom - those arias in which people go on and on; those silly plots. But aren't the endless repetitions of the da capo aria a kind of obsessive washing, an attempt to purge the soul? And Ariodante, with its Scottish setting and dark pastoralism, offers a ghostly presentiment of Romanticism, Alden's home territory.

The staging captures this, both in Ian MacNeil's designs and in the expressive physicality which Alden demands of his singers. In design terms, the three acts are linked by a false ceiling, at first allowing a glimpse of heaven but soon tilting to show man's vileness. MacNeil's sets also use reflective surfaces to confound the eye, question our perceptions; exactly the theme of the narrative, which shows the malevolent Polinesso (Christopher Robson) plotting to fool Ariodante (Ann Murray) by feigning to dishonour Ginevra (Amanda Roocroft). Ariodante believes his eyes, not his heart; torment for all ensues.

Alden probes at the opera's underside so that, while the final chorus tells us that Virtue triumphs, it is clear from the stage that no such resolution is possible. As in Cos fan tutte, the characters have seen too far into themselves. This is hardly controversial, and indeed this staging is less wilful than much of Alden's work. The Baroque idiom tempers his vision, which is not to say that one emerges emotionally unscathed; at one point, Polinesso, one of Christopher Robson's more malignant incarnations, sings 'I shun virtue forever,' but my ear heard 'I shall hurt you forever' - and I believe what my ears tell me.

Alden draws committed performances from his singers, although some seem stylistically more at home in the 19th century. Ann Murray stops the show, several times, with her wonderfully agile singing, using little of the mezzo's chest register but in control of the florid runs. Amanda Roocroft gives dramatic and vocal weight to Ginevra, who could easily radiate nothing but sweetness. Her second act nightmare, a prefigurement of bel canto mad scenes, is finely sung, acutely imagined. The edginess of Alden's vision is matched by Nicholas McGegan's handling of the score, bringing the clarity and energy of period instrument style to the modern orchestra. The Coliseum is sometimes said to be too large for Baroque opera. Musically and dramatically, this Ariodante suggests otherwise.

'Ariodante' continues to 10 June at the London Coliseum, London WC2 (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)