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University Opera turns in strong rendition of Handel's demanding Ariodante

Ariodante: The king's daughter is accused of cheating.
Credit:Brent Nicastro
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University Opera opened its 2013-14 season with Handel's Ariodante at UW Music Hall this weekend.

Director William Farlow has done his share of amends-making. After concocting a disgraceful travesty of Mozart's Don Giovanni a few years ago, he went back to it subsequently with an apt and responsible production. Likewise, with a misconceived remaking of Handel's Alcina behind him, he has come up with a quite effectively realized treatment of Ariodante, the predecessor to Alcina among Handel's three operas derived from material in Ariosto's 16th-century poem Orlando furioso.

It is a measure of the success of Farlow and the UW School of Music that so many promising vocal students now come to Madison. This allows him to draw many able singers for his casts. Ariodante has seven characters, and Farlow was able to double-cast four of them. In attending the opening-night performance, I had to miss the alternates who sing only on Oct. 27, and thus lost the chance to assess them.

Dealing with what I heard, though, I can report that the cast is earnestly competent. The chief standout is soprano Anna Whiteway. Though only a sophomore, she has a confidence and artistry of professional quality already. Her capturing of the shifting circumstances and emotions of Ginevra, the beloved of the title character, is beautifully rendered. As her romantic counterpart, suffering sharp reversals of fortune, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger shows the vocal and technical skills that have already launched her in a career in the Chicago area. Her role was originally written for a "star" castrato; she seems caught up in "trouser" roles now, and in that mode she would do well to learn more masculine movement. But her rendering of one of Handel's greatest arias, "Scherza infida," was deeply moving.

Both vocal and acting charm come from the soubrette-soprano Christina Kay, a graduate student, as Dalinda, the gullible dupe of the plot's villain. That character, Polinesso, was written for a female contralto practiced in "trouser" roles, so a countertenor was not a necessary choice here. I am sorry that the casting distributions denied me the chance to hear former UW student and opera performer Gerrod Pagenkopf in this role. His alternative, Spencer Schumann, has a voice range with good potential, but he has a long way to go in consolidating his vocal technique and bringing discipline to his acting. Of the other cast members (bass Erik Larson as the king; William Ottow as Odoardo), tenor Daniel López-Matthews as Lurcanio has particular difficulties with his share of the florid vocal writing that is demanded of all the singers.

Here we touch on one serious shortcoming of the production. Handel's form for the full arias (of which there are 23 in this score) are in a fixed tripartite format: main section/middle section/main section repeated for embellishment. By my rough reckoning, the so-called da capo repeats are taken in only 14 of these arias, and even then with little or no embellishment. Understandably, Farlow may want to avoid over-stressing his young singers, but the issue is one to be raised in view of the production’s serious commitment to proper style.

Something of that commitment can be seen in the lavish attention to costuming, done in 18th-century fashion. Some of the ladies' gowns are admirable, but many of the men's outfits are excessive. The king looks like an overstuffed character out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Conversely, the set hardly exists at all: The cast moves about among four very large suggestions of framed paintings, whose pseudo-Baroque daubings do not seem to relate to anything. But a major dimension of style is brought by conductor James Smith, who leads a very able facsimile of a Baroque pit orchestra, complete with vibrato-less strings. (I do wish he had allowed more prominence to the bassoon in the bass line of 'Scherza infida.")

Finally, for any modern production of an opera that was a particular spectacle for Handel, the crunch comes over the matter of dancers. Handel had a French troupe he gave a big set of dances at the end of each act, and for Act II they really were part of the psychological action. Farlow and Smith have no dancers. But, very sensibly, they preserve a dance or two at the end of each act, using an interesting little pantomime for the Act II conclusion.

In all, then, taken as what a student company can do in a long and demanding Italian opera by Handel, University Opera has made a fine achievement out of this production, and an impressive beginning to Farlow's final season as the company's director.

Two performances remain, on Sunday, Oct. 27, at 3 p.m., and Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m. The are a rare opportunity to see a full Handel opera in a credible production.

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