A curtain call for Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall. The performance with the English Concert, featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (second from right), came to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night. From L: Tyson Miller, Matthew Brook, Sonia Prina, Mary Bevan, Christiane Karg, conductor Harry Bicket, DiDonato, and David Portillo. (Jennifer Taylor)
Classical music critic

It was supposed to be one of the highlights of the classical season — and it actually was. Whatever it takes to create a sense of event and excitement was in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night for the star turn of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in Handel’s “Ariodante.”

This isn’t self-evident. DiDonato is a wonderful singer, but that doesn’t always guarantee a packed house for a baroque opera lasting nearly four hours. Those who made it all the way through the third act were amply rewarded: not only did DiDonato deliver, but the rest of the cast did, too. Is concert opera the true future of opera? Many of the most exciting performances I’ve experienced recently have happened without sets or costumes.

Handel’s long operas — he wrote more than 40 of them — are sometimes thought to need a lot of staging bells and whistles to make them palatable to a modern audience. But “Ariodante” is an exception for having a relatively straightforward plot: boy (Ariodante) gets together with girl (Ginevra); boy and girl are thwarted by an evil duke named Polinesso; the misunderstanding is worked out. These clear emotional lines allow the singers to focus not only on the athletic aspects of the evening — baroque opera, with each singer vying to outdo the others in long, virtuosic arias, represents a perfect fusion of music and sports — but also on the emotional ones. Anyone who thinks baroque opera isn’t relevant had only to see and hear Matthew Brook as the King of Scotland, Ginevra’s father, moving from paternal delight at her impending marriage to anguish when he believes Ariodante dead to horror when he believes Ginevra’s infidelity caused that death. The story line may be dated, but the basic emotions, and the powerful singing, were anything but.

Athleticism, though, is part of the fun of any opera. Harry Bicket, the baroque specialist (and chief conductor of the Santa Fe Opera), led his English Concert, a period-instrument group, with sensitive energy, supporting the singers with a solo cello here or a raucous and beguiling brace of natural horns. Pumping out long lines of notes at brisk tempos were the second pair of lovers, Lurcanio (sung by David Portillo, with gentle clarion ardor) and Dalinda; Mary Bevan jumped into this role at short notice and acquitted herself beautifully with a soft warm soprano.

Sonia Prina, the striking contralto who sang Polinesso, demonstrated one pitfall of tackling baroque opera: getting so caught up in the emotion that the voice doesn’t actually strike the center of the notes — which, in her case, led to a certain amount of (partly deliberate) braying. Nonetheless, she was an audience favorite for her utterly convincing portrayal of an androgynous and amoral womanizer. The singer had no hesitation about playing a man physically seducing a woman, even kissing Bevan’s Dalinda on the mouth — the one challenge that DiDonato’s Ariodante was unable to surmount; at the key moment, she kissed Ginevra on the forehead, instead.

It didn’t detract a whit from the luminous artistry of her performance. There are few singers more committed than DiDonato, but she manages the alchemy of converting dogged hard work into pure artistry. Even with this strong cast, she remained a step above the others, sending out her voice in long, clear, radiant lines of pure music that repeatedly, and deservedly, stopped the show.

It says a lot for Christiane Karg’s Ginevra that she was a worthy match for this, not least in the duets that are a feature of this relatively ensemble-heavy opera. “Ariodante” also has several instrumental ensembles, written to be danced, including one oddly placed at the end of Act 2. Karg performed her long, anguished aria “Il mio crudel martoro,” remained onstage through the instrumental exegesis and ended the second act with a brief, despairing recitative about her troubled sleep, without a sense of anticlimax.

Troubled sleep was the one complaint anyone had about the evening; if you’re going to offer an opera this long, why not start it earlier than 8 o’clock? Those relying on public transportation had to leave before Act III to get home. When you get an audience this excited for an event this good, you should give everyone an equal opportunity to enjoy the whole thing.