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With an understudy out front, ’Ariodante’ overcomes clunky staging at Lyric

Iestyn Davies (left) plays Polinesso, with Brenda Rae (right) as Ginevra and Kyle Ketelson as her father, in Handel’s "Ariodante."

Iestyn Davies (left) plays Polinesso, with Brenda Rae (right) as Ginevra and Kyle Ketelsen as her father, in Handel’s "Ariodante." | Cory Weaver/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Opera understudies no doubt look forward with both longing and dread to that rare occasion when they must step into the role they are covering. That moment came just a few hours before the curtain went up Saturday evening, when Julie Miller took the stage in the title role of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first-ever presentation of George Frideric Handel’s 1735 creation, “Ariodante.”

‘Ariodante,’ Lyric Opera of Chicago
★★★1⁄2

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
When: 2 p.m. March 5 and four additional performances through March 17
Tickets: $39-$299
Info: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org

Although the audience was no doubt disappointed to miss seeing the renowned mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, who was struck with the flu, there was also a frisson of excitement as it wondered how this relative unknown (she’s had six smaller roles at Lyric Opera since 2013-14) might fare.

The trouser (or cross-gender) role of Ariodante is a daunting one with seven major arias. It certainly would have been understandable if this alumna of the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric’s training program, would have faltered in what was by far her biggest and most high-pressure appearance. But she did not.

One certainly could have wished that she had a little more vocal heft and a stronger stage presence at times, but those were just quibbles. Given the circumstances, Miller delivered an extraordinarily composed and possibly career-changing performance.

One of Ariodante’s biggest moments comes in “Scherza infida,” a pained, 12-minute Act 2 aria after the character (erroneously) learns that Ginevra, the woman he is supposed to marry the next day, has cheated on him. Although Miller’s softer-edged voice might not have the smoky hues of some mezzo-sopranos, she nonetheless convincingly conveyed the character’s deep anguish.

Julie Miller (center) takes a bow during the curtain call at "Ariodante" on Saturday.

Julie Miller (center) takes a bow during the curtain call at “Ariodante” on Saturday. | Lyric Opera of Chicago

It was one of many vocal high points in a conflicted, 3¾-hour production that offered musical pleasures and theatrical question marks. Richard Jones, the original director of this four-company co-production that debuted at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2014, changed the original setting from the medieval royal court in Edinburgh to a remote Scottish island in the 1960-‘70s.

While certain aspects of this approach (revived here by director Benjamin Davis) are understandable and thought-provoking, it proves to be an unnecessary and at times burdensome theatrical overlay. It adds a strange Calvinist subtext that is not in the original and creates no shortage of inconsistencies within the story.

Most objectionable is the ridiculously over-the-top portrayal of Polinesso, who is transformed from a vengeful, villainous rival of Ariodante into a depraved Calvinist pastor and sexual predator — none of which is in the original opera. He licks a strand of Ginevra’s hair and sniffs her stockings after sneaking into her room and later engages in a brutal, semi-explicit sex scene with Dalinda.

The dances at the end of each act were rendered in this version as tabletop puppet sequences that extended and reinforced the story. Overseen by puppetry director Finn Caldwell, it was an unexpected and intriguing conceit that largely worked.

Rather than being aided by the at times exaggerated and distracting staging, Handel’s opera had to overcome it. And fortunately, the tight, compelling story and rich, well-developed characters expertly rendered by the composer and his first-rate anonymous librettist managed to do just that.

Handel’s deftly wrought, expressive music, which unfolds in an unhurried fashion that allows it to be fully savored, was sensitively realized by Lyric’s fine pit orchestra, augmented here by a baroque continuo trio that included harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner and theorbo player David Walker. Conductor Harry Bicket, an early-music specialist, provided adroit pacing and shaping throughout and carefully guided Miller through her unexpected moment in the spotlight.

The casting for this production could hardly have been better. In her Lyric Opera debut as Ginevra, soprano Brenda Rae lit up the stage with her big, bright soprano voice, handling with ease both the high-flying vocal acrobatics and the dark emotions this role demands.

Whatever one thinks of this production’s portrayal of Polinesso, countertenor Iestyn Davies threw himself into it with committed acting and impassioned, artful singing. The dependable soprano Heidi Stober delivered a rock-solid turn as Dalinda, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was effective as Ginevra’s father.

The evening’s other major find besides Miller was tenor Eric Ferring, who is only in his first year at the Ryan Opera Center and bursting with talent. With his dexterous tenor voice and flair for baroque ornamentation, he made the most of the role of Ariodante’s brother, Lurcanio.

One of the greatest composers of the baroque era, Handel wrote 42 operas, virtually all of which fell into obscurity after his death in 1759. They began to be revived in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the beauty and emotional power of “Ariodante” makes clear why it and many of the others are now regularly performed.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.