Gender Bender

ouston Grand Opera is making good on its promise that this will be "The Year of the Diva." Never mind that two of the women in the company's second offering of the season wear trousers. Women dressed as men, Pina Bausch-style dance theater and a wave machine -- Ariodante has it all.

David Alden's stylish postmodern version of Handel's castrato classic uses female mezzo-sopranos in the roles of the two male leads -- a not-so-novel approach considering that society frowns on castrating choirboys these days, but an approach that begs for a slightly more masculine staging for the audience to believe the gender-bending. Susan Graham, renowned for her trouser roles, makes her Houston debut and her debut as Ariodante, the knight with the voice of an angel. Her towering physique helps, but a little more boldness in the Act I movements would have helped more. She/he seems overly shy and wilting in the presence of Princess Ginevra's unabashed declaration of love. Graham's timid tiptoeing proves chivalry is not only dead, it died of effeteness.

That a wandering knight is so coquettish when faced with amore seems a tad surreal. But then most of the staging is an attempt at surrealism, a reflection of the deceptive plot and a device meant to challenge the audience as to what is real and what is not. Witness the window/stage at the back of the set through which principals and corps often cross to join the action on stage. Whether it is a painting or a stage or a real window becomes a moot point as characters interact in this tale of deception, redemption and love. For an opera the death count is decidedly low; only the evil Duke Polinesso (sung opening night by British mezzo Sally Burgess in another trouser role) gets to die on stage. But there is ample chest-beating and writhing in the agony of lost love.

Irish-born Michael Keegan-Dolan gives us choreography worthy of its performance. Good in the masked-ball number of the first act, the dancing becomes great in the more provocative delusional sequence of Act II. In a dream, Ginevra is pelted by apples -- first lobbed across the floor, then spat at her by the corps de ballet. The dancers are splendid in both the experimental movement and in the time-warping costumes of Ian MacNeil. Put your hands on your hips and take a step into madness as this dance progresses through the maligned princess's confusion and grief over learning her beloved has drowned himself as a result of her supposed infidelity (really a ruse concocted by Polinesso). And yes, there is the nudity, although the preperformance controversy seems to have been much ado about almost nothing. When dream Ginevra is stripped by the frightening corps and plunged into a vat of water, the effect is striking, not titillating. Brian Byrnes also gives a solid turn as fight choreographer, though it's too bad Ariodante doesn't get to fight; his brother (sung by American tenor John McVeigh, one of the few men in this performance) dispatches the evil duke before his arrival.

Ah, but there is singing, too. Both Graham and Burgess give the castrato a run for their money as they belt out bel canto with all the trills and flourishes that Handel instilled in the score. You can't even try to sing along with this style of music, much of which is coloratura, highly embellished vocal music that would leave lesser-trained divas panting. Of the singers in skirts, American soprano Alexandra Coku turns in a stunning and breathtaking Ginevra, completely over the edge in both love and grief. Christine Brandes (another American soprano) sings gorgeously as the deceitful maid Dalinda, and her love duet with McVeigh's Lurcanio is a delight. American bass Oren Gradus is the other male in the show, casting his tones as the King of Scotland, Ginevra's father. Christopher Hogwood (founder of the Academy of Ancient Music) is beyond compare in conducting the HGO orchestra.

With its weak plot (come on -- if Ariodante really loved Ginevra he would know that wasn't her with the duke), this opera originally relied on its beautiful music. But Alden's version has even more to recommend it -- namely, Ian Rutherford's postmodern staging and MacNeil's costumes and sets. Devices such as the window/stage, the movable mirrored flats and the wave machine through which Ariodante and Dalinda roll until they are spit out on shore all create a theatrical world of wonder. The music and dancing are only enhanced by the staging, decor and lighting, the last an eerie renaissance creation by Wolfgang Göbbel.

Coloratura, choreography and Caravaggio-inspired sets meld to create eye candy with a pleasing sound. If you see only one avant-garde opera this year, make it Ariodante.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marene Gustin