Sexism, bullying addressed by modern production of ‘Ariodante’

When Handel’s Ariodante first surfaced in the early 1700s, the ideas of sexism and bullying ran rampant throughout the opera. Now, as stage director John Giampietro takes two casts into the nearly 300-year-old performance, society is still grappling with those same issues.

“We’re exploring gender roles, the place of women in society, the issues of bullying, bodyshaming and slutshaming,” Giampietro said. “All of these issues were present in the original Handel. We’re just looking at it through a contemporary lens.”

Two casts of seven Voice Program students will perform Ariodante four times this week beginning tonight, each at 7:30 p.m. in Fletcher Music Hall and benefiting the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund. Wednesday’s and Friday’s performances will spotlight one group, and Tuesday’s and Thursday’s performances will showcase another.

Handel’s opera Ariodante follows the lives of Ariodante, a knight, and his love Ginevra. The two are set to be married when a rival of Ariodante, Polinesso, uses Ginevra’s servant Dalinda to trick the protagonist into believing Ginevra has been unfaithful.

The chaos that ensues may cost Ginevra her friends, her family and her life.

“Nobody asks her what happened — they hear it, and all the men believe she is guilty,” Giampietro said. “What makes us immediately believe women are unfaithful? I think it’s because of the basic gender bias that is taught to us.”

Performing an opera set in Scotland and sung in Italian with such deep, relevant messages seemed complicated to Giampietro. Although the opera will be sung fully in Italian with English subtitles projected during the performance, his “contemporary lens” takes form in the setting: an elite preparatory high school.

“Our job as artists and collaborators is to find out what a piece of music means in the context of our world,” he said. “A lot of these students are not far removed from high school — they understand that experience. Who’s got a personal stake in understanding what a princess goes through? But maybe they’ve got a stake in what a high senior goes through.”

Amanda Bottoms, a mezzo-soprano who portrays Ariodante in tonight’s performance, said figuring out how to embody an “angsty teenage boy” as a woman herself has been a little challenging.

“Physically, it’s very different. Boys — down to the way they walk — it’s just a very different stature,” Bottoms said. “There’s a difference in how things are expressed, and it’s fun. I have a lot of male friends [and] I watch them now like, ‘What are you doing? How does that work?’ ”

Bottoms said the audience will get a different experience depending on which cast they see, even though it’s the same opera.

“If you come to both nights of the opera, you’ll see a very different portrayal of each character,” Bottoms said. “The opera follows the storyline that Handel has written, but there’s little nuances that John has allowed us to come up with and embody on our own. He is unimaginably supportive of our individual ideas.”

Bottoms alone will be performing seven individual arias — each character has at least three — and said Giampietro has a wonderful, innovative approach to tackling something very archaic.

“John has a very new twist on something that is still very valid today: that women — we don’t always have a say,” Bottoms said. “It’s interesting approaching this play as a man and having to be OK with it at times. It’s very complicated, but I think John has come up with something that will speak volumes.”

The cast for Tuesday and Thursday features Amanda Bottoms as Ariodante, Erin Schwab as Ginevra, Vartan Gabrielian as Il Re, Guillaume Poudrier as Polinesso, Monica Dewey as Dalinda, Michael St. Peter as Lurcanio and Joseph Schuster as Odoardo. 

The cast for Wednesday and Friday features Abigail Fischer as Ariodante, Emily Pogorelc as Ginevra, Tyler Zimmerman as Il Re, Philip Stoddard as Polinesso, Gyu Yeon Shim as Dalinda, Kyuyoung Lee as Lurcanio and Miles Herr as Odoardo.

Ten School of Music students from the Instrumental Program will serve as the orchestra for all four performances, and features Michelle Kim (violin), Rita Wang (violin), Katie Gallagher (viola), Kellen Degnan (cello), Lauren Rodewald (double bass), Mary O’Keefe (oboe), Amelia Van Howe (oboe), Abigail Black (horn), Melvin Jackson (horn) and Kristina Nelson (bassoon).