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Seen and Heard International Opera Review



Handel: Rodelinda San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 29.09.2005 (HS)



What is it about Baroque opera that brings out such ludicrousness on the modern stage? Is there something missing in the music that makes directors want to muck it up with unnecessary or wacky stage business? Sure, the stories are complicated, convoluted and, well, baroque, but there IS a kernel of truth in the good ones and honest emotion to be mined.

San Francisco Opera's current production of Handel's Rodelinda (borrowed from the Bayerische Staatsoper) delivers the musical goods, with energetic conducting from Roy Goodman and singing that ranges from pretty good to great -- notably countertenors David Daniels and newcomer Gerald Thompson. But the production continually frustrates a viewer. Admittedly, the libretto is messy. A typical explanation of the story line reads like a parody of an opera synopsis. Try these sentences from SFO's program:

"Grimoaldo, who has usurped Bertarido's throne, wants to marry Rodelinda, but she furiously rejects him. Grimoaldo turns to Garibaldo for advice as to how to rid himself of Eduige, Bertarido's sister, to whom he is betrothed, so that he can marry Rodelinda instead."

Garibaldo is the villain who pushes Grimoaldo into becoming a usurper and a tyrant, but, it turns out, the tyrant lacks the stomach for it. Rodelinda calls his bluff, telling Grimoaldo that she will marry him only if he kills her son first, because she could not be the mother of the legitimate heir to the throne and the wife of a tyrant at the same time. Grimoaldo can't, to Garibaldo's disgust. Grimoaldo, meanwhile, has his own designs on the throne, through his on-and-off relationship with Eduige. Remember her? The exiled king's sister? In the end, the king returns, is taken prisoner, escapes, and saves Grimoaldo from Garibaldo's assassination attempt. Relieved, Grimoaldo cedes the throne back to the rightful king.

Not trusting this Age of Enlightenment story, director David Alden twists it into a film noir concept. Ladling on an Expressionist nightmare, he fits out the stage with outsized figures, walls and windows that dwarf the characters. Updated to the 1930s, the royal intrigue at the heart of the opera makes no sense, even with awkward references to Il Duce. Not trusting the music, Alden encourages comic background action that is often at odds with the aria being sung.

But the sets look really cool, especially the last-act wall of red that divides into three sections, each of which rotate into sterile white rooms to suggest offices and prison cells. The tomb scene has a series of gargantuan rolling statues and the final scene is the wall of a skyscraper tilted left at a 30-degree angle.

The clothing is sharp, too. Draping soprano Catherine Naglestad (Rodelinda) in elegant black gives her the film noir version of regal bearing, and decking out mezzo soprano Phyllis Pancella in tight-fitting outfits emphasizes her characterization of Eduige as a slut. Grimoaldo (Paul Nilon), in pin-striped suit and fedora, primps like a film noir hero in Act I but by Act III ends up looking disheveled, like Dean Martin after a long bender. Garibaldo (Umberto Chiummo) is all in leather, obviously the villain. David Daniels (Bertarido) spends most of the opera looking forlorn in a rumpled suit, in Acts II and III even more disheveled and drunk.

Close your eyes, though, and the music is pretty darned good, especially when the countertenors are singing. All of the vocal highlights involve them. Daniels delivers remarkable purity of sound and expression in his first aria, "Dove sei?" And his rapid-fire "Vivi, tiranno," the Act III showstopper he sings after saving Grimoaldo's life, explodes with stunning power and astonishing accuracy. But Thompson, still an Adler Fellow in the opera company's development program, nearly steals the show with his two arias. He also executes the comedy turns like a young Chaplin. (How many comic roles are there for countertenor, anyway? He could own them.)

Soprano Naglestad, who made a strong impression here as Alcina last season, has some wonderful moments, especially in the slower, lyrical arias such as the Act III lament "Ahi perché, giusto ciel." In her duet with Daniels, "Ritorna, o caro e dolce il mio tesoro," which closes Act II, the parallel thirds were rapturous. But Rodelinda must also sing some challenging coloratura, and that seems to defeat her. At times, too, her voice goes in and out of focus.

Nilon lends his lyrical tenor to Grimoaldo's music, especially the Act III pastoral, sung while clinging to a ledge on the tilted building, but is not up to the coloratura, either. Chiummo's lightish bass doesn't sound as menacing as it could and Pancella's slutty gyrations are more interesting than her underpowered singing.

Productions like this have polarized San Francisco audiences during general director Pamela Rosenberg's tenure here, which concludes after this season. "Eurotrash," sneer the naysayers. I don't always hate them, but at one point a couple of years ago I said to my wife, "If I see one more trench coat and fedora, I'm booing." Trench coats and fedoras fit in a film noir concept, but in this case the concept gets in the way of the opera. Thank heavens for Daniels and Thompson, who remind us what Handel opera is all about.



Harvey Steiman


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