Credit: Cory Weaver

No one wants to see general director Anthony Freud on the stage of Lyric Opera before the curtain rises, but on opening night of Ariodante last Saturday, there he was again, bringing the news that mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was down with a fever and wouldn’t be there to perform the title role.

Aagh. Chalk it up as another casualty of this long dirge of a winter. In her place, Freud said, we’d have recent Ryan Opera alum Julie Miller.

Then the delicious George Frideric Handel overture began, and the curtain rose on three rooms in what could be a castle on a remote Scottish island where the country folk had gathered to hear the stringent admonitions of a black-clad preacher man.

As dramaturg Derek Matson noted in a preopera lecture well worth the early arrival, Ariodante, first performed in 1735, is an Italian opera written by a German composer for an English audience. It runs just short of four hours (long was appreciated back when there was no other way to hear music but live), and has a good-versus-evil plot that turns on a patriarchal code of ethics in which a female breach of chastity can result in an “honor killing.” Handel set it in medieval times.

In this version, an international coproduction originally directed by Richard Jones, the action has been moved forward to 1970, the melodrama ramped up, and the bad guy in a traditional love-and-power triangle turned into an easily recognizable villain—a tattooed sadist in biker’s garb under his priestly cloak.

There’s plenty to take exception to, including simulated abusive sex, props that look like Tom of Finland sketchbook rejects, and a pole-dancing puppet sequence (substituting for a ballet) in which the virginal heroine, Ginevra, foresees herself hitchhiking outta there and rapidly descending into a desperate state of exploited debauchery. All this culminates in a radical change in the story (spoiler alert) that amounts to grafting the walk-out finale of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House onto what Handel intended as an all’s-well, lovers-reunited conclusion.

Whether that change can offset either the original or the new misogyny of this updated production is arguable, but the heavy-handed melodrama, wedded to a sublime score in which no situation is too dire for delicacy, nuance, and beauty, made for a very interesting evening.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies, fully convincing as Polinesso, the despicable preacher, provided ravishing vocal moments. So did a pair of silken sopranos: Brenda Rae, in her Lyric debut, as Ginevra and Heidi Stober as her easily misled maid, Dalinda. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was solid as Ginevra’s torn father, the King of Scotland, and Ryan Center tenor Eric Ferring was notable as Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio; Miller, admirably, held her own. Harry Bicket conducted.   v

Correction: An earlier version of this review identified Julie Miller as a Ryan Training Center alum. She is, in fact, a Ryan Opera Center alum.