Handel's 1725 "Rodelinda" is a majestic and yet rarely-performed opera
... but rare no longer. The entire "German Handel revival" began with
"Rodelinda" in Gottingen on the work's 300th anniversary, and the 21st
century is chuck full of it: Munich in 2003, the Met last year, a San
Francisco run opening tonight, and a Canadian Opera production next
month, among others.
The San Francisco production comes from Munich, directed by David Alden,
on Paul Steinberg's spectacular sets, conducted to perfection by Roy
Goodman (with stunning continuo performances from the orchestra principals
and John Churchwell's harpsichord), and featuring a cast that will be
talked about for years. "Rodelinda" is new to the War Memorial, but not
to the company: in a memorable SF Opera Showcase production in 1985,
Adler Fellows sang the roles, including Dolora Zajick in the castrato
role of Bertarido (the good king, deposed by the evil Grimoaldo)...
wearing a beard.
In tonight's cast, there was another Adler Fellow, Gerald Thompson,
making a sensational debut as Bertarido's servant, a countertenor holding
his own against the star in the king's role, David Daniels. Both singers
had a special night, singing both heroically and lyrically, right along
with Catherine Naglestad's true diva performance in the title role. In
this opera consisting of individual arias, there is only one duet, closing
Act 2: Naglestad and Daniels brought tears to many eyes in the audience
with their melting (and yet "properly Baroque") lyricism, the two voices
merging into one transcendent sound on the wings of the music from
Goodman's band-on-fire in the pit - one of several, of many magic moments.
The two bad guys, Grimoaldo and his hatchet man Garibaldo, were sung by
the debuting tenor Paul Nilon and baritone Umberto Chiummo, respectively.
Another debut, Phyllis Pancella, as Eduige, fits right into the seamless
cast of outstanding singing-actors.
"Rodelinda" is another good reson to give thanks again to the brave folks
who had brought supertitles into the opera house not all that long ago.
Corneille's 1652 drama about the "King of the Lombards" is dense enough,
but the Salvi-Perti libretto Handel used is cheaply sensational, confused
and confusing, with weirdly arbitrary shifts and turns. It's still the
same old story, a fight for love and glory, but if it weren't for the
music and the supertitles, "Rodenlinda" would not even make it into the
NBC drama lineup. Maybe Fox.
Alden's direction fits well into general director Pamela Rosenberg's
schizophrenic approach to Baroque opera: provide the best possible musical
forces for the production, but don't trust the music to make it on its
own - or the audience to be able to appreciate the work by itself. And
so, once again, there is superb, affecting singing, but always against
stupid efforts to sabotage the performances. Without exception, every
aria is accompanied (and intruded upon) by some irrelevant, noisy,
distracting stage business.
Not satisfied with the singers dancing to their own arias, the "beware
of static opera" approach dictates such shticks as a rifle being assembled
downstage during one aria, a character entangled in a chair and falling
down upstage while Daniels is singing his heart out elsewhere - every
time, without fail, there is the attempt to "liven it up." It was a
virtual relief when the singer of an aria was directed to do his or her
own "livening" - Nilon pirouetting while singing, Pancelle straddling a
man during the aria, Daniels taking his shoes and socks off, etc. -
rather than being exposed to the busywork of someone else.
In truth, the choice is not between static or lively opera, but between
respecting and trusting the music and the performers... or not.
The production's sets (in Pat Collins' lighting) should have been more
than enough in themselves to provide the distraction this administration
constantly craves. Onlike the directorial monkey-business, the sets
deserve acknowledgment for their artistic-architectural-engineering
values. From walls that literally close in on the characters, to a
row of gigantic papier-mache statues (moved, naturally, during an aria,
all the better to distract attention), to the second act under a bridge
("enlivened" by some rain, perhaps to connect with a reference to water),
and all that aerial action in Act 3, there was much to watch and
appreciate... if you needed a respite from the music.
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