Retrofitting a Baroque opera such as Rodelinda into the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House makes about as much sense as renting Yankee Stadium to stage My Dinner with Andre. Beyond the mismatch in venue, however, there's little to criticize in the Met's supersized production of Handel's richly lyrical opera seria. The December 3 live simulcast, buoyed by the strong ensemble efforts of a superb cast of singer-actors led by Renée Fleming, sparkled and shined for the better part of its four-plus hours.
The current Met offering, only the fourth Handel opera to be presented there, reprises the 2004 production debut of this largely forgotten opera seria, updating the plot from a medieval tale of intrigue to one roughly contemporaneous to the time of Handel's tenure in London. In addition to Fleming (Rodelinda), veterans of the 2004 cast include Stephanie Blythe (Eduige) and conductor Harry Bicket.
Rodelinda, written for London's Royal Academy of Music and first performed at the King's Theater in 1725, tells the tale of the dethroned King Bertarido, whose wife Rodelinda and young son are held in captivity by the man who would be king, Grimoaldo. But let's not get hung up here on the storyline: The true mission of early 18th-century opera seria was to showcase the lead singers (sopranos and castrati, mostly) via a steady stream of da capo arias designed to allow these prima donnas to show off their wares.
For those in need of a refresher course in Opera 101, a da capo aria is constructed in three-parts [ABA], where the initial melodic section [A] is followed by a contrasting section [B], after which the music returns to the beginning [A] — only now the singer is expected to decorate the returning melody with improvised embellishments such as trills and rapid scalewise passages called coloraturas.
By Handel's time, lead singers wasted little time trying to outdo their competitors with (mostly superfluous) vocal pyrotechnics. Enter the reign of the singer. Opera divas and male altos (castrati) became the superstars of their day, commanding greater attention (and larger salaries) than the opera's composer.
Handel designed Rodelinda to showcase the celebrated diva, Francesca Cuzzoni. The Met does likewise, only here it's Renée Fleming. As the title character, Fleming has the lion's share of arias in this work, and while her golden soprano may have lost some degree of weight and substance from years past, our modern-day Cuzzoni proved that she has what it takes to deliver this role with grace, élan and no small measure of flamboyance.
Fleming's flexibility of voice in the coloratura passages throughout the performance was often breathtaking, and she rarely chose the safe path when embellishing her arias. She peppered the da capo repeat of the second act Spietati, io vi giurai with an array of daring coloraturas and trills that few sopranos today would risk. Fleming was equally impressive in the expressive numbers, particularly in the poignant lament, Se'l mio duol non è sì forte — massaging the tender, dirge-like phrases with sufficient feeling and emotion to bring a lump to one's throat (live simulcast audiences no doubt saw the tears in Fleming's eyes as she sang this).
As the alternately love-struck and vengeful sister of exiled King Bertarido, Stephanie Blythe as Eduige was sturdy in voice throughout her four arias. Blythe's second act aria of vengeance, De' miei scherni per far le vendetta, breathed fire into the heavily caffeinated runs, coloraturas and embellishments. The dramatic soprano's smooth delivery throughout the rapid changes in vocal registers revealed a liquid legato worthy of admiration from even the most particular of Handel worshippers.
Tenor Joseph Kaiser, as the slick (albeit not entirely evil) would-be successor to the throne, Grimoaldo, forged a character initially self-serving and evil but who grows sufficiently enlightened to reshape himself by the end of the story into the architect of a new Milan — with a restored King Bertarido. Kaiser's captivating tenor, while not especially strong during his first act aria, Io già t'amai, came to the fore in the exquisite second act aria, Prigioniera ho l'alma in pena, one of the two or three most memorable numbers in this opera.
Shenyang, the promising young Chinese bass-baritone, crafted the role of Grimoaldo's adjutant, Garibaldo, with just the right balance of arrogance and villainy. His imposing physical presence recalls Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca (a role for which I imagine his voice is well suited), and his handsome and resonant baritone carried sufficient dramatic weight to achieve credibility of character.
Shenyang's da capo arias, however, revealed a lack of vocal flexibility necessary to propel the rapid 16th-note coloraturas without dragging behind the beat (on one occasion during the first act he trailed the orchestra by nearly a full beat). How I wish singers would take a cue from instrumentalists when they find themselves falling behind: Just drop a damn note or two and catch the next downbeat!
Rodelinda calls for two countertenors, and both acted well and sang with penetrating expression. Still, it was impossible to ignore the striking timbral differences between the alto voices of Andreas Scholl and Iestyn Davies, performing the castrati (males castrated before the onset of puberty) roles of King Bertarido and Unulfo, respectively.
Davies, in his Met debut as the deposed king's loyal ally, showed a greater consistency of tone when crossing from high to low alto registers than did Scholl, and he delivered his three arias with hardly a suggestion of falsetto. The promising British countertenor overcame some unevenness in the 16th-note runs in his first act Sono i colpi della sorteto deliver a very impressive Fra tempeste funeste in Act 2 (one of the catchiest numbers in this work), with well-timed melodic ornamentations that fitted comfortably within the steady pulse of the music.
Scholl, in the role of the unlucky king made famous during Handel's time by the great castrato, Senesino, sang with incredible expressiveness and delicacy of tone throughout the production, particularly during the irresistible second act sicilienne, con rauco mormorio. His intonation throughout the performance was impeccable.
Scholl's faux alto in this performance nevertheless revealed a pronounced timbral contrast between high and low registers that sacrificed strength and focus in the low notes. On one occasion, while singing a descending melodic line in the low register near the end of the B section of Confusa Si Miri, Scholl's voice briefly morphed into his (normal) baritone voice. Occasionally, the sound of his voice in the deep alto register invited unwelcome comparisons to Mickey Mouse. And although his embellishments were solid, Scholl tended to shy away from the customary trills at cadences.
Production director Stephen Wadsworth animated the stage action by keeping the non-singing characters in motion during the stagnant arias. His daring choreography of the swordfight between Scholl and Kaiser, which at times looked a bit too real for comfort, provided the audience an entertaining visual divertissement.
With the help of moveable platforms taxied from right-to-left by two wagons, set designer Thomas Lynch's handsome and richly detailed period set created a panoramic look and feel to the scenery that broadcast hostess Deborah Voigt observed "seems to go on forever." Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz's early 18th-century costumes gave the principal characters a faithful and distinctive period look.
Conductor Harry Bicket, who led the Met Opera Orchestra at the original 2004 production, divided his time between the podium and one of two harpsichords in the pit, from which he accompanied the recitatives. A scaled-down Metropolitan Orchestra, which except for the addition of two recorders made little attempt to capture a sense of period-instrument authenticity, responded well to Bicket's generally brisk-paced tempos.
Young Moritz Linn, in the ubiquitous non-singing role of Rodelinda's son, Flavio, convincingly played his part as the innocent heir to the throne to perfection. When Rodelinda dares Grimoaldo to slay the boy, Linn stands tall — staring down the knife-wielding villain with puppy-eyes that that could disarm a hungry lion. Not surprisingly, it was Grimoaldo who blinked first.
Perhaps there's a promising future for this boy as a singer, as well. But please, don't touch the scissors...
By David Abrams
Photo credits: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; Ken Howard/ Met Opera.
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