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Seen and Heard Opera Review

HANDEL Rodelinda  Renée Fleming, Kobie van Rensburg, Oren Gradus, Stephanie Blythe, David Walker, Theodora Hanslowe, Zachary Vail Elkind, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Harry Bicket, 18th December 2004 (BJ)



First, the good news: one of the greatest operas written before Mozart, Handel’s Rodelinda, has finally made it into the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera. And at the end of the evening I was left experiencing the proper gooseflesh effect, as Handel’s consolatory closing ensemble set the characters’ earlier sufferings firmly in the past. Handel’s way of finishing serious operas is fascinating, because it accomplishes the obligatory “lieto fine” of the period almost always briefly and always with a magically light touch.


That lightness was evident through a good deal of the performance I witnessed. At first, indeed, the orchestra sounded short of body and resonance, but from the start of Act II things improved, as Harry Bicket projected the rest of the work with increasing incisiveness and a sure sense of pacing.


I fear, however, that there was a lot wrong, both vocally and in Stephen Wadsworth’s direction of the stage action. Part of the vocal problem was circumstantial: David Daniels, who has been spearheading this production in the central role of Bertarido, the King of Naples, was for some reason replaced on this evening by David Walker, while the other leading countertenor in the cast, Bejun Mehta, was ill, and the role of Bertarido’s faithful counselor Unulfo was taken by mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe. Walker sang decently if without much beauty of tone, and Hanslowe, after a weak start, delivered her later arias impressively and also made something touching of Unulfo’s gentle devotion; but the vocal impact of Handel’s inexhaustibly varied and humanly perceptive writing would surely have been greater if Daniels and Mehta had been on hand.


As the villainous Garibaldo, too, Oren Gradus was not the strongest imaginable replacement for John Relyea. And then there was the Rodelinda herself. Renée Fleming has lately added Handel to her list of favored composers, and it would be unfair to question a serious and by all accounts dedicated artist’s involvement in singing and playing this peach of a role. But the fraying of the upper register that has become increasingly worrying in her recent performances and recordings seemed on this occasion to have invaded the rest of her range. I hate to say it, but this much-fêted singer does not appear at this stage of her career to be capable of true vocalization, let alone real singing. By that distinction, I wish to suggest that vocalization can be a success if notes are strung together in meaningful relation to each other within a convincing legato; for singing to happen, this is not enough–there must also be a projection of the text that makes dramatic sense. Neither condition did Fleming’s Rodelinda meet. Rather like Joan Sutherland in her old recording of the role, she could have been singing in any language, so unvaried was the tone-color no matter what the vowel, and so impossible it was to understand more than the occasional word. And there was no line. No note had any connection with any other note. It was as if each was being pressed through cheesecloth–one might stick out a little more prominently than another, but overall the entire process sounded both random and labored, quite aside from the undermining influence of a persistent wobble, and a woeful fallibility of intonation. I do not know what has brought Fleming to this pass–whether it is doing too much too soon, or whether there may be some fundamental flaw of method–but I am clear that these problems need to be addressed if her career is not to come to a premature and much regretted end.


Significantly, darling of the Met public though Fleming is, when it came to the curtain calls Stephanie Blythe, who sang the role of Rodelinda’s sister Eduige, was greeted with much the more enthusiastic ovation. She deserved it, for aside from her sheer dramatic conviction, she had provided far the best singing of the evening, though the South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg also sang and acted well as the usurper Grimoaldo. This, incidentally, is one of the most fascinating roles in Handel opera. Unlike Garibaldo, who is evil through and through, and whose demise is unlikely to be mourned by anyone in the audience, Grimoaldo is a complex figure torn between lust and scruple. His change of heart, when it eventually comes, is thus completely believable, and Van Rensburg conveyed the character’s emotional turmoil, expressed at one point in a soliloquy that recalls Shakespeare’s “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” in Henry V, with apt intensity.


The other component of the bad news relates to the dramatic aspects of the production as a whole. Thomas Lynch’s sets were extremely handsome, as were Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, though their uncompromisingly urban nature lent improbability to Bertarido’s reflections about murmuring streams, not to mention Grimoaldo’s totally unlikely ability to curl up to sleep on a hard pavement. More damaging, however, and sadly typical of contemporary opera production, was Wadsworth’s unwillingness to let us ever listen to the music and watch the action without some distracting business. It is quite a while since I was last allowed to enjoy that wonderful feeling of anticipation that goes with hearing the overture before the curtain goes up. Too often these days, the curtain has never been down. Then there was constant wanderings around the stage by superfluous persons to save us from having to concentrate on the aria in hand, not to mention the exploitation of the Met’s superb stage apparatus to slide one set half out of view and let yet other extra characters beguile us while a singer was left to finish his or her aria more or less unnoticed.


There were, I must acknowledge, some effective and even some charming touches in Wadsworth’s stagecraft, such as the way Zachary Vail Elkind, in the silent role of Rodelinda’s and Bertarido’s small son, tugged his parents’ sleeves and gleefully pointed out the embrace that was marking the reconciliation of Grimoaldo and Eduige on the other side of the stage. One particular set of wanderings around proved, moreover, to have a dramatic point. Every few minutes, two or three sentries would march purposefully across from stage right to stage left, usually beginning their transit as an aria reached its middle section. At first I thought this was just one example of the general inability to let music and drama make their point undisturbed. Then I realized Wadsworth was showing us what a fear-ridden police state it was that the characters were living in. Fair enough–the point was made. The trouble is, such a point was very evidently no part at all of Handel’s concern, nor of that of his fine librettist Nicola Haym. Handel is all about individuals. What makes his operatic music so great is the depth, vividness, and endless diversity it brings to the persons it depicts. To turn Rodelinda instead into a demonstration of the perils of totalitarianism is to reduce it from the level of high art to that of just another weary piece of agitprop.


Ah, well; as I said, the gooseflesh effect worked in the end, and I left the theater with a lump in my throat. But then again, I am not sure I should have done so if I had not previously known the work well through recordings, including the superb one conducted by Nicholas Kraemer. At all events, it is a pity that thousands of people should be making their first acquaintance with one of the masterpieces of lyric theater in this diminished shape.



Bernard Jacobson



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