The morality tale behind Scottish Opera’s take on Handel’s Ariodante

Ariodante. Picture: Getty Images/AFP

Ariodante. Picture: Getty Images/AFP

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Crime and punishment are powerful themes in Scottish Opera’s take on Handel’s Ariodante, says conductor Nicholas Kraemer

In its day, 1735 to be exact, Handel’s “Scottish” opera Ariodante met with reasonable success. But its original run of 11 performances in London’s Covent Garden was soon eclipsed when Handel’s next opera, Alcina, became the big hit. Does that make it a second rate opera? Not according to Nicholas Kraemer, currently moulding it into musical shape as conductor of Scottish Opera’s new production, which opens next on 16 February at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

“Actually, it’s one of his best,” Kraemer reckons, a view we should take seriously, given the many Handel operas the Scots-born harpsichordist, Baroque specialist and former assistant conductor of the BBC SSO has conducted over the years.

“You’ll find in most Handel operas one or two average quality arias, but in this one they’re all really something. They stretch the singers in a way the others don’t. For a start, all of them have to sing incredible coloratura, including the bass, which is quite unusual. In my view, it’s a real treat.”

It’s also the only opera Handel set in the British Isles. Generva is the daughter of the King of Scotland, and promised in marriage to the nobleman Ariodante (Caitlin Hulcup). The plan is thwarted by the jealous Polinesso, who manipulates the trickery and deceit that dominates the opera. In the end, Polinesso gets his comeuppance, and all is well for the reunited Ariodante and Generva in the Royal Palace of Scotland.

The setting of this production, however, is neither Scottish nor British. “There is mention of Edinburgh in Handel’s stage directions, but we haven’t set it anywhere specific,” Kraemer reveals. Harry Fehr’s production, he adds, is more to do with the concept of a close community in which morality is law, and punishment of the merest crime severe.

In every sense, he is finding this new Scottish Opera production thoroughly refreshing. It’s not the first time he has conducted Ariodante. That happened exactly 30 years ago in Geneva – a production, he recalls, that did not do it justice.

“For one thing, it was the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which, in those days, never played Handel. So when I went in with my ideas of how it ought to be played – remember, I had my own specialist Baroque group at the time – they had no idea what was going on and it wasn’t very good; a musical mishmash really.”

“And in those days conductors weren’t expected to be involved in anything other than the music – and not even that really. You’d just go in, conduct the orchestra, and the singers did what they liked. I don’t think I took much notice of what was going on. I’m glad things have moved on.”

Indeed they have. Kraemer was given carte blanche in choosing his orchestral forces, opting for a sizeable core of strings and continuo – he will double as one of the two harpsichordists – with a sprinkling of flutes, oboes and horns as the instruments of coloration.

Both he and Fehr are enjoying working together again, with what they both consider a fabulous cast. It’s their third operatic collaboration.

“We have a very good team of singers. Nobody is standing out as being grander or more entitled than anyone else. I think Harry has that effect. He just has this wonderful way of bringing out the best in people. He’s very inclusive in that way.”

Nonetheless, this is an opera that requires a strong central idea if its stylised musical language is to mean anything. Handel’s operas are notoriously long and require cuts to make them palatable to modern day audiences. “The cuts are easy to make”, says Kraemer, who never had to make the choice anyway as they were decided on before he came on board.

“The real issue in getting ridiculous storylines across to a modern audience is finding an intelligent director, not one who is up himself, so to speak. Then it’s not difficult at all. In many productions I’ve worked on I’ve taken a moment to stand back in rehearsal and look at things from an audience perspective, asking why he or she is doing this or that. I’ve hardly had to do that in this one. What Harry is doing is all so perfectly clear.”

It’s also quite hard-hitting, although Kraemer doesn’t want to let the cat out of the bag. All he’ll say is, “There are some things you have to know a little about, such as the law as it applies to this particular community, where adultery is punishable by death. You just have to know that, and this production makes it very clear why.”

Where some productions of Ariodante side-step the dance scenes that play an important narrative role, here they have a definite place, choreographed by Kally Lloyd-Jones. “These are really interesting musically,” says Kraemer, “some of them sounding very French with a strong hint of Rameau. The key thing is that they are not seen as extras – or an excuse for the audience to chat among themselves, as often happened in the olden days – but as an integral part of the storytelling.”

Might they include the odd Highland Fling, which Amsterdam audiences are currently witnessing in a parallel production by Dutch National Opera and Ballet, one that sets Ariodante on the island of Harris?

“I know about that one, because my son is in it,” says Kraemer. “I can promise you, you won’t see any bagpipes or kilts in our production.” ■

• Scottish Opera’s new production of Handel’s Ariodante is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 16, 18 & 20 February, 0844 871 7647; and Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 24 & 27 February, www.scottishopera.org.uk

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