I half-wanted to dislike it; my expectations were very low. Renée Fleming in the Baroque, after her very uncertain recent outings in bel canto! Let’s face it; this year, her Rossini (Armida) and Donizetti (Lucrezia Borgia) did not cover her in glory. How, at this HD relay on December 3, would she cope with Handel’s stitchery, hardly less complex for the voice than that of Rossini? Stephanie Blythe, reliable as rain, but again, not a Baroque singer! And then, there is the Met itself, whose ambivalence toward the eighteenth century is well displayed by their production of Gluck’s Iphigenie (hire modern-style voices and bury them in darkness), and the upcoming Enchanted Island (remind everyone why pastiche was so meretricious). Moreover, there is the Met’s broad conservatism, punctuated by insane risks, exhibited this season by the intellectual timidity of their Anna Bolena on the one hand, and the admittedly innovative if perhaps ineffectual experimentalism of the new Faust on the other.
Rodelinda itself has a rather unusual history. It was Handel’s third hit in a row for the Academy of Music at Haymarket in 1725; following Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano; it was arguably the best thing he ever did for that company. He blurred and dampened the achievement in his 1731 revival by importing bits from other operas—but let that pass, let that pass. Rodelinda marks the initial point of the 20th-century Handel revival; produced in 1920 at Gottingen, and again in the United States in 1931. Despite several notable productions in our era, beginning with the 1959 Handel Opera Society’s staging in 1959 with Joan Sutherland, the Metropolitan Opera did not get around to it until 2004, and it is a revival of that production, which they staged at the urging of Fleming herself, that we see now.
Rodelinda was one of the roles Handel created for the flexible, expressive, and ugly superstar, Francesca Cuzzoni. At 52, Fleming is fairer far than Cuzzoni was at 25, and doubtless a better and more responsible singing actress. Although the accuracy of her passagework will never satisfy the purist, it was a relief to hear that, as evidenced by the very first aria (“Ho perduto”), Fleming has found her trill again, and she is as lithe and convincing a stage presence as the Met has now.
As Grimoaldo, the usurper with a conscience, one of the first major tenor roles Handel wrote, Joseph Kaiser acquitted himself very well, and made a striking stage presence, although it is possible to hear the creep of a wobble in the sound that may trouble him later; Blythe was dramatically handsome in carriage and vocal delivery as Eduige. Shenyang, as the unrepenting villain Garibaldo, sang well enough, but fell flat as a stage presence; he was surrounded by singers who gave dimension to their parts, but his portrayal was almost cartoonish in its simplicity.
And then, there were the countertenors—in this revival, Andreas Scholl and Iestyn Davies. Countertenors were never Handel’s choice—if a castrato were not available, he preferred women en travesti or recasting for the tenor range; and, truth to tell, he seems to have had little patience for the castrato voice, temperament, or fan-culture. Given, however, that we are not about to create new castrati, and blithely dropping an entire role down an octave is not an entirely satisfactory solution either, there has arisen a new breed of countertenor, ready to take on the challenges once given to opera’s geldings.
Bertarido was one of the great Senesino roles, and it can be argued that Handel gave him, as befitted his star status, all the best tunes—“Dove sei,” which perhaps rivals “Ombra mai fu” in beauty, is only the first of many beauties; Handel gave the trusty Unulfo, first played by Andrea Pacini, a succession of sparkling and difficult arias. There is some question about the suitability of the countertenor voice to the cavernous Met spaces—hence, no doubt, the Met’s reluctance to invest heavily in the Baroque, which relies so much on male characters in the treble registers—and, no matter how deftly Scholl and Davies work, they are, in effect, singing falsetto, and there will always be a heft lacking.
Nevertheless, Scholl was an effective and affecting Bertarido, albeit a tad underpowered; Davies, in contrast, had enough squillo to make his arias seem louder than they perhaps were. A salute should be given to ten-year-old Moritz Linn in the silent role of Flavio—he was wonderfully striking and expressive, despite the impossible task of emoting without a word to say or sing.
The plot is based, quite loosely, on the unpromising theme of 7th –century north Italian history, and it was just as well that no effort was expended to recreate the Dark Ages.Wadsworth’s conception gives us a kind of tempered 1725—hair and apparel that “feel” period, without quite being accurate to the button. Gone are the cypress groves of Haym’s libretto; instead, we see a chastened and peeling grand 18th-century house, with its reception rooms, stables, gardens, library, and, of course, dungeon. Wadsworthand Lynch took every advantage of the Met’s resources to suggest an almost infinitely wide and deep royal demesne, albeit one of decayed grandeur.
The great downfall of this sort of opera seria is that is consists, in effect , one aria after another , a phenomenon that makes Rodelinda and Bertarido’s duet, “Io t’abbracio,” almost inadvertently moving (and the closing refrain of the opera, for five actual voices, makes you feel faint!), but Wadsworth understood how to vary and deepen the movements of the characters to propel a (for the period) remarkably human and touching story. Even more, perhaps, than in his staging of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, he elevated an 18th century work to something well beyond the staged concert. We can only hope that Jeremy Sams and Phelim McDermott do as well with Enchanted Island.
Rodelinda is a piece that thrives and perhaps even benefits from HD broadcast; for the very reason that it, like most Baroque operas, was originally offered in much smaller houses, the close attention of the camera parallels 18th-century audience experience. There were–to answer recent parterrian questions–without doubt little microphones stashed here and there in the wigs, but, so far as one could tell, only to secure HD audio transmission.
HD, like Peter Gelb, favors the toothsome, but while it certainly reminded us how attractive Fleming is, even a large creature like Blythe looked good. The intermissions, hosted rather a bit stiffly by Deborah Voigt, featured the fatuities that are already the stock-in-trade of the HD broadcasts (Standard Question One: “What makes this role so difficult?” Standard Answer One: “Well, I just want to give it my best shot, and God willing, we’ll win the pennant this year.” No, that’s Bull Durham; sorry! All the directors and conductors are The. Best. Ever! also–got that?) The novelty this time around was watching the stage crew wheel the immense set pieces in, around, and out, like a game of what used to be called Chinese Checkers (now to be called Our Overlords’ Game).