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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Rodelinda HWV19 (1725)
Rodelinda - Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Eduige - Felicity Palmer (mezzo)
Bertarido - Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Grimoaldo - Paul Nilon (tenor)
Unulfo - Christopher Robson (counter-tenor)
Garibaldo - Umberto Chiummo (bass)
Flavio – Elias Maurides
Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
PCM-Stereo, dts Surround; subtitles in German, English, Italian, Japanese; format 16:9, NTSC; Region Code 0 (all regions)
rec. in conjunction with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich State Opera, 2004.
FARAO CLASSICS D108060 [2 DVDS: 203:00]
Experience Classicsonline

First the good news. Rodelinda may not be the best-known Handel opera, but it confirms my growing belief that there are no more duds amongst his operatic output than there are among Bach’s cantatas – a zero sum in both cases, I think. So many masterpieces that such fine recordings as McGegan’s Ottone have languished unplayed in my collection for too long. If you can ignore the shortcomings on which I am about to expatiate, you have here excellent performances of a fine work, well recorded.
 
Now the bad news. Why do opera houses have to ruin really good singing and musical direction, plus excellent orchestral support, with gimmicky productions? I’m afraid that this production falls into that category – like the recent EMI version of Schubert’s Fierrabras which I reviewed, I shall be listening to these DVDs in future in sound only. The problem is so prevalent that I keep a DVD player linked to my audio setup for that purpose. I don’t think that there is a rival DVD version of this opera but if, like me, you find yourself listening without the pictures, there are very good alternatives on CD from Alan Curtis (Archiv) and Nicholas Kraemer (Virgin).
 
The notes in the booklet seek to defend producer David Alden’s decision to update the action to “a Mafia milieu, somewhere in Italy, sometime in the 50s” on the basis that “perhaps the last great dynasties are embodied in the Mafia families”. Sorry, I just don’t buy it – the whole thing puts me off from the very start. Why does most of the production take place in semi-darkness? And why do we later have to have Grimoaldo’s Mercedes on stage?
 
There’s a considerable degree of facial distortion and other over-acting, too. However useful this may be in a large auditorium – and I’m perfectly happy to believe that Handel’s original actors indulged in it to some degree – it is very off-putting close-up on DVD.
 
Perhaps I’m really old-fashioned, but I’d much rather have something more straightforward: my two models for opera on DVD are William Christie’s Monteverdi Ritorno d’Ulisse and Riccardo Muti’s Mozart Don Giovanni. Christie (Virgin Classics 4906129) offers a minimalist production with the singers in timeless costume and very little scenery, Muti (TDK 2055451) a performance in more or less eighteenth-century costume: in neither does the set, the costumes or the acting seriously hamper the music. I now sit back and prepare to be contradicted – in fact, I note from the Farao website that another reviewer has awarded top marks to the whole production.
 
As far as the musical content is concerned, I’m more than happy to give this the top rating. The first DVD opens with a crisp and stylish performance of the Overture. The Bavarian Opera Orchestra is not, of course, a group of period players, but Ivor Bolton certainly has plenty of experience with such ensembles and he brings a sense of Baroque style to these modern-instrument players. The continuo is provided by a harpsichord and archlute or theorbo – clearly visible but not audible. Bolton himself conducts standing before a second harpsichord, but we never see him actually play it.
 
My very favourable impression was soon profoundly modified, however, when the curtain rises on a large brick wall with windows in it. The libretto clearly specifies Appartamenti di Rodelinda – these are very strange apartments. In the near-darkness, we see Rodelinda and her son emoting at one side of the stage and Grimoaldo preening himself at the other, while through the windows we see someone slinking along with his back to the audience, clearly up to no good – it later turns out to be Garibaldo eavesdropping on the exchange between Rodelinda and Bertarido.
 
As soon as the singing began, my reaction again changed gear – I was (almost) happy to forgive the sins of the production for the quality of Dorothea Röschmann’s singing. Here, and throughout the performance, she brings perfection to the part of Rodelinda, vocally and dramatically. When Paul Nilon (Grimoaldo) had finished preening himself, his singing also made me temporarily forget the horrors of the production.
 
Just as the positives were beginning to offset the negatives, however, the sight of Felicity Palmer as Eduige grimacing in one of the windows, then climbing through inelegantly, produced the sinking feeling again. Palmer is particularly guilty of the large-scale emoting to which I have referred, alternately pouting and grimacing in a way which makes her look more like a character from a third-rate soap-opera. By now even the quality of her singing – just as excellent as the other two principals – was not enough to subdue my annoyance that such a fine singer was being directed to behave in this way.
 
Umberto Chiummo, too, sings excellently, though again with distracting stage business – preparing his sub-machine gun, strapping on several sticks of explosive and finally slipping a stocking over his head while he is singing! It is a great tribute to him that he manages not to be put off one whit vocally in the process. If this preparation for unspecified nefarious activity were relevant to the plot, I wouldn’t mind – but it isn’t.
 
The memorial to the supposedly dead Bertarido is represented by a grove of huge cut-out human shapes. I thought this quite appropriate – though not exactly the bosco di cipressi specified – until, later in the scene, we see clearly the stage-hands behind them as they move the figures one by one off the set. Michael Chance sings well, though he suffers from the usual problem of the modern counter-tenor, that his voice doesn’t quite rise above the orchestra in the way that Handel’s castrati would have. His aria Dove sei, amato bene, is one of the most beautiful that Handel wrote – a challenger to Where’er you walk and Ombra mai fu, though much less well known – and the applause which it received was just as well deserved as anything up to that point.
 
Bertarido is supposed to be disguised as a Hun; I did not think that Huns dressed in ragged mittens, threadbare Fair Isle pullovers, tattered jackets and battered hats.
 
The other counter-tenor, Christopher Robson as Unulfo, also sings well but has the same problems as Chance and he is not assisted by being made to look like a cross between Eric Morecambe and Alec Guiness’s portrayal of Smiley. Nor does it help that he later has to fool around with a tape recorder, on which he plays (or records?) chants of Duce! – and ends up being floored and entangled in the microphone lead.
 
The virtues and vices which I have analysed in Act I apply to the remainder of the opera. It would be tedious to continue to itemise the aspects of the production which annoyed me or the musical virtues which didn’t quite negate them.
 
If I single out Dorothea Röschmann for particular praise, it is mainly because in her account of the aria Ombre, piante, she rivals and perhaps out-performs Emma Kirkby on her 3-CD set of Handel Arias (CDS44271/3 – see review). If you have read any of my reviews of Emma Kirkby recordings, you will know that that is very high praise indeed.
 
Were it not that I found the production so off-putting, I’d be making this DVD of the Month – Röschmann’s singing alone merits that, quite apart from the other musical virtues – as it is, the Thumbs Up is a compromise rating.
 
The sound is excellent, whether played via TV or through an audio system. The picture, too, is excellent, though most of the scenes are deliberately gloomy. With hdmi upscaling on an HD-ready TV, you might easily be watching a blu-ray recording.
 
The material in the booklet is minimalist. No texts, of course – the subtitles take care of that to some extent, but when can we have an opera CD where the original and the English translation can be displayed simultaneously, as in a libretto? Just occasionally the Italian subtitles do not quite correspond with what is being sung. When Rodelinda sings m’involasti e regno e sposo, Grimoaldo varies the word-order in his reply - E sposo e regno appunto a renderti/vengh’io - but the subtitles repeat the original order. There is a useful online Italian libretto and several sites which offer a good summary.
 
For all my reservations, this will be my version of choice: I just won’t watch it. It may seem a waste to listen only, but the price of these two CDs is very competitive with 3-CD audio-only recordings.
 
Brian Wilson
 

 


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