Handel’s opera Rodelinda was broadcast on the Metropolitan Opera’s HD network today. First performed in 1725 it was performed for the first time by the company in 2004. The reason for the opera’s emergence from the dustbin of operatic history was Renée Fleming who performed the title role that season and again during the following one. This revival also features her in the lead part.
Handel’s operas have not been a prominent part of the Met’s offering in its more than one and a quarter centuries of its operatic life. In fact, the first Handel opera wasn’t staged by the Met until 1984 – Rinaldo with Marilyn Horn and Sam Ramey. There’s a very good reason for this omission. Handel was during his lifetime the most popular and accomplished composer of operas in the world. But these works were very different from those which comprise the standard operatic repertoire – ie, those composed by Mozart all the way to the end of Richard Strauss’ career.
Baroque opera consists mainly of a succession of da capo arias. This form is in three parts. A first section followed by a different one which in turn was followed by the markings – da capo, “from the beginning.” This repeat was expected to be ornamented and embellished by the singer. This resulted in lots of musical fireworks often at the expense of art. Furthermore many of the most important roles were written for castrati. These castrated males had the vocal range of sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, but were said to have more vocal brilliance, power, and stamina than their female counterparts. The best of them were the superstars of their day. There is almost no ensemble singing in these operas. Rodelinda has a duet near the end of the second act and a quintet at the opera’s end. That’s it. All the rest is recitative and da capo arias.
There seem to many people who like this sort of stuff and who are delighted at the reemergence of Handel’s operas from their long neglect. I’m not one of them. Three hours of da capo arias with their endless repeats makes Philip Glass seem the soul of variety. As there are no longer any castrati around, we can all agree that this is a turn for the better, the solution has been to assign these roles to a woman (for instance, Marilyn Horn as Rinaldo) or to give them to countertenors. This was the choice made by the Met for Rodelinda. There are two such roles in this opera.
The problem with using countertenors in roles written for castrati is that they lack the power and vocal heft needed for these roles. Listening to men sing falsetto for hours is painful to ears used to Verdi. Andras Scholl sang the role of the deposed king Bertarido, while the afternoon’s other countertenor, Iestyn Davies, portrayed his friend Unulfo. They both were fine if you can get past their small voices produced entirely in the throat. As for me, bring back Marilyn Horn.
But these men were not the reason to go to this show, assuming you like this kind of music, the two female leads were. Renée Fleming was beautiful both of voice and look and thus provided the main reason to mount this opera. She has the sound and style needed for Handel. “Io t’abbraccio” the opera’s only duet was sung (with Scholl) with sensitivity and pathos that brought out the emotion of the reunion of Rodelinda with her husband. It was the highlight of the performance.
Stephanie Blythe was the conflicted sister of Bertarido in love with the usurper Grimoaldo, tenor Joseph Kaiser. Blythe has a remarkably pliant mezzo that is equally comfortable in both Wagner and Handel. A great artist. Kaiser was both vocally and dramatically convincing as the bad guy who reforms at the opera’s end.
Garibaldo, the work’s true villain, was sung by Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang. This 27 year old artist has a bright future. This is his third role at the Met which seems to be grooming him for a big career.
Baroque specialist Harry Bicket had the down sized orchestra under firm control. Though there didn’t seem to be a lot of ornamentation and embellishment allowed from the singers in the da capo part of the endless arias the comprise almost the totality of the opera. We can only guess what this and Handel’s other operas sounded like to their 18th century audiences.
Director Stephen Wadsworth moved the action from the 7th century to the 18th. Thomas Lynch’s mammoth sets moved sideways and up and down. Nothing like this would have been possible at the Haymarket Theater in 1725. But given the Met’s extraordinary technical assets, they were effective and along with Martin Pakledinaz’s opulent 18th century costumes seemed apposite to the score.
TV director Matthew Diamond, who made his Met debut with this broadcast, struck the right balance with his cameras. There were no annoying ultra close close-ups. He was unobtrusive which is exactly what he should be.
In summary, if baroque opera is high on your list, this show was perfect. If a nap at the opera was part of your plans, I found this one not conducive to 40 winks – countertenors and da capos arias can cause nightmares.
George Frideric Handel–Nicola Francesco Haym
Harry Bicket, Harpsichord recitative
Bradley Brookshire, Harpsichord ripieno
David Heiss, Cello
Daniel Swenberg, Lute, Baroque Guitar, and Theorbo
Set Designer…………Thomas Lynch
Costume Designer……..Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer…….Peter Kaczorowski
TV Director………….Matthew Diamond [Debut]