Sunday, June 15, 2008

Good People and Good Fortune

Watching the first performance of George Frideric Handel's Ariodante, presented this afternoon by the San Francisco Opera, I found myself thinking again about Daniel Mendelsohn's proposition that "Good people do not, generally speaking, make good subjects for operas." There may be a somewhat loose analogy that applies to good fortune. We are, of course, used to the dramatic arc through which good fortune is interrupted by bad fortune and restored by the conclusion of the plot. Mendelsohn uses this approach to elaborate his proposition in his New York Review article about the Philip Glass opera, Satyagraha:

Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to plot as a knot tied by the author (he calls it a dêsis, a "binding up") out of the manifold strands representing competing wills or desires or ideologies; an ugly and worrisome knot that will, in due course, ultimately come undone in a climactic moment of loosening or release of tension (the lysis, or "undoing")—a concept that survives in our term "dénouement."

This is why "bad people" are so important, since they are the ones doing that necessary "binding." This Aristotelian model still holds for most plots we encounter. It is certainly there in Ariodante, but this opera presents an interesting problem of scale. How long must we wait for the "binding up" to being in earnest?

In Ariodante my simplistic three-stage reduction of Aristotle pretty much corresponds to the three acts:

  1. Ariodante loves Ginevra, daughter of the King of Scotland. She returns his love. His father approves their marriage, and they are destined to become the next King and Queen of Scotland. The only problem is that the Duke Polinesso also loves Ginevra; and Ginevra's lady-in-waiting, Dalinda loves Polinesso. Polinesso enlists Dalinda to help him get even with Ginevra for her spurning him; this will be the dêsis of the plot.
  2. Polinesso convinces Dalinda to wear Ginevra's clothes. He then romances the disguised Dalinda in front of Ariodante to convince Ariodante than Ginevra is not pure. Ariodante goes off and jumps off a cliff. His brother Lurcanio (who happens to have been spurned by Dalinda) pleads with the King for justice and accuses Ginevra of being the cause of Ariodante's death. The King denounces Ginevra as impure and has her put in chains. (Is that bound up enough for you?)
  3. Ariodante survives his leap. He encounters Dalinda, who tells him everything. Polinesso offers to defend Ginevra's honor before the King and is mortally wounded in a duel with Lorcanio. Ariodante returns to court and sets everything right. Dalinda marries Lorcanio, and Ginevra marries Ariodante.

While is this as neat a division as you are likely to get, the problem is that music tends to be at its most interesting where bad fortune is involved. Put another way, there is only so much you can take of people singing about how happy they are (as was nicely satirized in the El Dorado song from the musical Candide). Perhaps Handel planned his first act for its "publicity value," providing every member of the cast with the opportunity to sing at least one da capo aria (which I previously compared with Shakespeare giving every one of his characters a soliloquy). No matter how interesting the music is and how good the voices are, this tends to get very top-heavy very quickly. It becomes a classic case of "one damned thing after another!"

This puts a tremendous burden on the conductor to make sure that there really is more to the succession of arias than that Churchillian put-down. Handel does not help very much; but, at this particular performance, I suspect there was more variety in the "text" of the score than conductor Patrick Summers managed to elicit from his orchestra and singers. Each aria certainly had an ample share of virtuosic demands; and some (but not all) of the performers (Susan Graham and Richard Croft doing the best jobs) found their way through to nuanced shadings while jumping through their respective hoops. Nevertheless, this was not the sort of first act that left one sitting on the edge of one's seat eager to find out what will next ensue.

Nevertheless, returning from intermission for the second act (rather than bailing on the whole affair) was extremely rewarding. This is one of those cases of dêsis in which both of the principal characters get to have mad scenes. Handel did not invent the overcome-with-grief aria (since that can be traced back to Orpheus after losing Eurydice in Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo); but, as I previously wrote, he could do this sort of thing very well indeed (so well that he was known to transplant one of those arias into a new opera). In this opera Handel is as good as he ever gets with Ariodante's mad scene. The strings have their prototypical "sighing motif;" but they set off a solo bassoon line which is profound enough to belong in its own concerto. Meanwhile, the vocal line runs through enormous intervallic leaps in both directions, all at a slow but steady pace. This particular staging required Graham to sing the final passage lying on her back, which she did without having any problems with projecting her voice to the entire audience. Ginevra's aria, which concludes the act, is not quite as sophisticated musically but carries the greater dramatic burden. Ariodante is all set to kill himself; Ginevra, on the other hand, is still in the dark as to why she is about to be imprisoned and even more uncertain about what will happen to her. Ruth Ann Swenson's acting was definitely at a high point during this aria.

This left the third act for the lysis. In terms of timing, it was a lot more conducive to the attention span than the first act was. This was due, in part, to there being one duel fought and another almost fought (before Ariodante reveals himself to Lurcanio). After that, Dalinda spends a bit more time than she should trying to make things right with Lurcanio, particularly after all the first act arias about how wonderful things are going to be; but we eventually find our way through to a double wedding and joyful chorus.

Finally, it is worth noting that the arrangement of the orchestra was rather similar to that employed by the San Francisco Conservatory students in their production of Francesco Cavalli's L'Egisto. Most of the instruments were modern, including a cello for much of the continuo work. However, the continuo also included a harpsichord (two in the San Francisco Opera production, one for the conductor); and both productions included a theorbo. This is basically an overgrown lute with a sufficiently long neck to allow plucked strings to sound bass notes that have a rather eerie sound (definitely not like the low notes on a harp). This instrument is amazingly effective when profundity of emotion (particularly grief) is paramount. I was impressed with how well the Conservatory production had employed it and delighted to find it being used equally well by the San Francisco Opera. Now, if they can only figure out a way to put a bit more pace into that first act!

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