The San Francisco Opera’s season-ending Ariodante did not disappoint, once we all got over the withdrawal of Eva Podles several weeks before the run began. I was glad that my years of subscribing to SF Opera ended on a good note both on stage and in the audience. The whole thing felt rather elegiac, since I entered the crazy little world called opera through the baroque repertoire (I saw stuff like Rameau’s Zoroastre long before my first mainstream opera, which was Rigoletto, in an inadequate Met touring production). Baroque opera is why I don’t believe people who complain about the lack of melody in new operas; baroque opera is nothing but gorgeous melody after gorgeous melody, yet there is often an aura of palpable discomfort in the audience when the usual Verdi-Puccini-Donizetti-and-sometimes-Wagner fare is replaced with Handel, or occasionally even one of his lesser comrades. I don’t know if it’s the A-B-A aria structure that frightens people (though they should be used to a certain amount of this from Mozart), all the girls dressed like guys and guys sounding like girls, or the unfamiliar plots, or some combo of all those things. But perhaps repetition and exposure are wearing away that resistance too; the audience for Ariodante was remarkably attentive and receptive, at least the night I was there. Perhaps word had just gotten around that SF Opera had a season highlight here.
The storyline, surely familiar to all of us from Ariosto’s delightful Orlando Furioso, seemed a bit perfunctory, but I don’t know if that’s the libretto or the staging. It didn’t really matter, since the plot did what it was supposed to do, which was maneuver the characters into varied emotional states. Baroque plots always seem more complicated than they are. Years ago V actually accompanied me to a Handel opera (I’m drawing a blank, embarrassingly enough, on the title, and I’m not where I can check it, since the SF Opera on-line archives do not include Merola performances). She made the mistake of trying to read the plot summary, which I realized as soon as I saw the increasingly baffled look on her face, the plot being one of those “the shepherd Florimel, disguised as the shepherdess Floribel, is in love with Flomarinda, who is disguised as some damn thing, because she is fleeing from her father. . . .” I told her not to read the plot summaries; they only confuse you. The action is always perfectly clear when you see it on stage. I’m here to help.
I’m not going to make (too much) fun of baroque plots, either. All plots are arbitrary arrangements, and whether or not they seem ridiculous or contrived is just a matter of which conventions you’re willing to accept. When SFO did Rodelinda a few years ago, I read one review (it might have been in the Wall Street Journal) that was puzzled by the film-noir staging, finding no link between the two styles: well, both are highly stylized forms that use elaborate plots to suggest deep levels of corruption and cruelty. It seems close enough to me. I knew a woman (as we go back again to my early days as an opera-goer) who dismissed all baroque opera plots out of hand as absurdly unrealistic, yet her favorite opera was Tosca. Obviously Tosca struck a deep mythic and sympathetic chord in her, but it’s not exactly a storyline that could have been torn straight from the pages of my non-existent diary. I mean, if it could have been, I’d probably actually keep a diary.
Susan Graham as Ariodante and Ruth Ann Swenson as the beloved Ginevra were the outstanding singers in the all-round excellent cast, with Richard Croft’s Lurcanio close behind. I have heard from others that Swenson was a little variable during the run, but I had her on a good night; she really does have a golden tone that has always sounded well in the War Memorial Opera House. I can’t disagree with SFMike that Graham’s performance only confirms her divinity. I was a little mixed about Podles’s replacement, Sonia Prina; her runs and other baroque vocal extravagances sounded quite precise, but the overall sound was fairly harsh; it worked very well for the villainous Polinesso, but I’m not sure I’d be really eager to hear it in a more sympathetic character. My only complaint about Patrick Summers’s conducting was that I thought the pacing for the two big arias (Ariodante’s Scherza Infida and then Ginevra’s lament shortly after that – sorry, I don’t have the libretto with me and can’t be more specific with the first line) was a mite slow, almost to the point of slacking in tension – yet Graham and Swenson both were intense and wonderful in their singing despite that, which is why I’m giving them my much-coveted title of Most Fabulous Among the Fabulous. I liked the Tiepolo-ish costumes, and I also liked the setting (mostly movable dark-green marbled walls with golden cornices), but there did seem an odd disjunction between the colors of the costumes and those of the walls, as if some baroque Merce Cunningham had designed the show.
This was just one of those evenings where the work and the performance and the audience all clicked, at least for me (see Brian at OutWest Arts for an alternate take, though; and check out Opera Tattler’s Ariodante log for a thorough review of the score and the audience over several performances). Thus endeth the subscription. I did briefly contemplate getting a “choose your own” series for next season, but decided I might as well take the opportunity to sit in different areas of the house. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure I could come up with the minimum four operas next season that I really wanted to pay for. In at least some fairness to SF Opera, since I’ve mentioned several times that they’ve never bothered to contact me about my lapsed subscription, I should point out that I received a form letter from them last week – I’m not criticizing them for sending a form letter; actually, I think it’s great that they reach out to everyone; I certainly wasn’t expecting an individually tailored letter – expressing regret that I didn’t renew, giving me Gockley’s e-mail address in case I wanted to express my concerns, and suggesting one of the “choose your own” subscriptions. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s what it said – I was in kind of a rush when I read it.)
I don’t think I’ll e-mail any blog links to Mr Gockley, but I do have one bathetic request: someone over there at the War Memorial Opera House really needs to keep the men’s room stocked with paper goods. A couple of times this season we haven’t had any paper towels to dry our hands, and before Ariodante I actually had to pass a roll of toilet paper under the stall to the desperate man next to me. Little things add up to big impressions.