She goes to bed with her EARRINGS on?? No wonder she sleeps badly. Never mind the business of being chained to her bed by the evil usurper who having (probably) despatched her husband is now trying to marry her to consolidate his claim to the throne.
Opera generally gets a lot of stick for the absurdity of its plots, and Handel may get more than most. I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I’m tired of defending my hero Verdi, who wasn’t always well-served by his librettists, okay? I know. I still love the operas.* And Rodelinda does have some credibility problems. How, exactly, did the usurper usurp, and why did the proper king leg it so quickly that the usurper doesn’t even know what he looks like—this is crucial to the plot—leaving his wife and son behind? But if you view the story within the three-act box of Handel’s music without worrying about how it got there or how it’s going to get back out again, it works pretty well. And even with some reservations about this production the second-act reunion duet between Rodelinda and her husband made me cry.**
Okay, here’s the rude, anti-Pollyanna bit: I didn’t think a lot of any of the three principals. I worshipped the ground Renee Fleming walked on when I first heard her—must be nearly twenty years ago. Less so lately. I’m not the only person who finds her style somewhat detached*** and while this works a treat for Strauss† it doesn’t always work elsewhere; and this may just be the terrifying luck of your-body-is-your-instrument singers but I haven’t much liked what she seems to be doing with her voice as she gets older and it inevitably changes. I thought her style worked better tonight than sometimes but I wasn’t always delighted with the noise she was making. She was Rodelinda (duh); Andreas Scholl played Bertarido, her rather feckless husband, and he was the biggest shock to me. I have been a big fan of his—and I’m extremely fussy about my countertenors—and I would have said he has a perfect voice for Baroque music: pure, clear and exact. You hear every one of those hemidemisemiquavers.††
Well, you heard them tonight too, but they were kind of soft and fuzzy around the edges, which is not what you want. The acoustic? Maybe. I don’t know, and my ear isn’t that good anyway. But he’s barely frelling audible. If anyone as asking me—which they clearly are not—he’s not an operatic singer. You have to be able to punch it out there from the operatic stage; he’d be fabulous in a small room with a harpsichord and a few viols. Sob. I wasn’t expecting this at all. And possibly because of the volume issue I felt his voice sounded over controlled—forgive me, but I kept thinking of Nadia saying ‘don’t be afraid of the notes’.
Stephanie Blythe is the second one from the original production—I didn’t know this, but apparently she and Fleming are an important part of why Baroque operas are being staged at places like the Met again after decades of neglect and no small amount of scorn.††† So full points there. But as a singer she has never done that much for me. She’s a mezzo or an alto or one of those dark rich things and she increasingly seems to me effective enough but strangely characterless. Maybe I just have Marilyn Horne and Janet Baker (and Eileen Farrell and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) too firmly fixed in my mind’s ear, but Blythe sounds to me like a really great choir alto.‡
The sparkle tonight was contributed by the secondaries. I was particularly impressed with the evil usurper who is a dismayingly thankless role, and a classic Miser Leans Against Wall and Becomes Generous character to make the plot work out at the end. But he brought it off. Joseph Kaiser plays him as young and confused and torn between what he wants and what he knows is the right thing to do—and furthermore on the rebound from Blythe’s character Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, having refused to marry him (he thinks. They get together at the end, after he leans against the wall). The other standout is Unulfo, Bertarido’s one loyal retainer, who is also the only person who knows he’s still alive. He’s another countertenor, and while he isn’t particularly loud either, it’s a very bright, sweet voice—none of the odd muffling of Scholl’s—and he doesn’t sound strained or over-calculated.
I mostly liked the production too, although in a laudable attempt at distracting the 21st century sound-byte audience‡‡ from the long unspooling of A-B-A-with-twiddles there was perhaps at times too much stage business. LEAVE THE FRELLING FLOWERS ALONE FOR PITY’S SAKE.‡‡‡ But four and a half hours? Piffle. It rips along.
Oh, and my purling is coming along nicely.
* * *
* Except Falstaff. Which I can only listen to by carefully forgetting everything I know about the plot.
** Also: they kissed. I mean really. People don’t kiss in opera. When I was first going to operas forty-odd (eep) years ago people didn’t kiss in operas, but then they didn’t act either so the kisslessness was just part of the strange Noh-like system that you either learnt to buy into because you were infatuated with the music, or you didn’t, and stopped going to the opera. Then acting started happening and very exciting it was too. But there was still no kissing. I’ve assumed this is because all singers are (totally justifiedly) NEUROTIC about their voices—and opera is stylised, there’s no getting around it, and demands vast extents of disbelief suspension, so I can cope with the no kissing. But tonight—kissing! Genuine lips-to-lips germ-exchange KISSING! And as a soppy terminal romantic, I like kissing.^
^ There is kissing in SHADOWS. Just by the way.
*** I was looking her up on Wiki and they call Violetta (from La Traviata, my fave of faves) one of her ‘signature’ roles. Like hell it is. You cannot do a cool Violetta—as I found out when I made that schlep toLondon two or three years ago to see her do it live.
† I didn’t like Capriccio last year because I didn’t like Capriccio, which is a different issue, although Fleming’s presence didn’t help.
†† You do not hear all the hemidemisemiquavers with Fleming.
††† ‘They’re all too long and they all sound alike.’ You have to like Baroque music. And the (a) sing something—(b) sing a slight variation of the first thing—(c) sing the first thing again with twiddles pattern is the way they did it. First one character sings A-B-A-with-twiddles and then another character sings another A-B-A-with twiddles, and then . . . But when they do it as well as Handel did—in Rodelinda among others—that’s just fine. I know Handel operas far less well than I should so while I vaguely knew that Rodelinda is about a captive queen who stands up to her jailer and is a Strong Heroine blah blah blah blah . . . actually, she is. The scene when she confronts the usurper and says ‘I’ll marry you . . . if you kill my son before my eyes . . . and if you marry me, you will marry Death’ is pretty fabulous. I thought it was well staged here: the kid^ is clearly in on it with his mum, and they both know what they’re risking to force the bully to back down.
The one piece of the emotional jigsaw that did not work for me at all is Bertarido deciding that Rodelinda is a worthless trollop for appearing to yield to the usurper’s proposal. HE’S THREATENING TO KILL HER KID, YOU MORON. YOUR KID. (Which is where she gets the idea for the confrontation.)
^ The kid, a non-speaking role, is unusually well done. Non-speaking kids in opera are usually either puppets or pains. This one has quite a lot to do and does it convincingly.
‡ She also can’t act. She’s a big girl—even a very big girl—but there are lots of people out there who can sashay bulk delicately. I always feel extra guilty for my lack of convincedness when I hear her being interviewed, because she sounds intelligent and funny and no-nonsense and probably a great person to have as a neighbour. As well as the best alto your local choir ever had.
‡‡ Most of whom, as previously observed, are older than I am. I had Pooka out and was texting to a Baroque-music-loving friend during the intermissions.
‡‡‡ From what I felt was a very emotionally effective second act it came a bit unravelled in the third. Bertarido manages to stab Unulfo when Unulfo is trying to rescue him, and they’re all oh, never mind, gotta keep moving. What? Later when Bertarido is doing his A-B-A-with-twiddles thing at Grimoaldo, the usurper, about the fact that B had just saved G from being murdered by the one real villain of the piece, he says ‘now go ahead and murder me so you can keep the throne’, Rodelinda is just kind of standing there. Granted this trick worked pretty well in the second act when she and her son did it—even so.
Oh, and Dove Sei? Bertarido’s—Scholl’s—introductory aria in act one, so I was sitting there going noooooo. Lovely but underpowered.
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