First the good news. Rodelinda
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
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
, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
libretto and several sites
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.