A terrific Met cast shines in the glorious tangle of Handel’s “Rodelinda”
The impenetrability of opera plots is a commonplace, and that is one reason why reading Gabriele Baldini is so bracing and salubrious. A specialist in Elizabethan drama, Baldini pronounced the libretto of Il trovatore — the most lampooned operatic yarn of all — “perfect” and “miraculous” because it “allow[s] for the musical life of its characters and for that alone.”
By Baldini’s standards, the labyrinthine book of Handel’s Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi, revived Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera, must be reckoned a prodigy. First performed in 1725, Rodelinda is based at several removes on Pierre Corneille’s tragedy Pertharite, roi des Lombards, which itself draws on chronicles from roughly a millennium earlier. The common mechanism driving these very different creations — French drama of the Grand Siècle, Baroque opera, and the high-Romantic tumult epitomized by Trovatore — is the grid of conflicting emotions and imperatives that lacerates their characters, spurring them on to monumental poetry and song.
In Rodelinda, Grimoaldo, who has usurped the Lombard throne, has long pursued Eduige but now loves Rodelinda. Rodelinda, who agrees to marry Grimoaldo to save her son Flavio’s life, eventually demands that Grimoaldo kill Flavio as a condition of gaining her hand. Garibaldo is Grimoaldo’s counsellor but has designs on the throne himself. Add a secret underground passage, an attack in the dark gone dreadfully awry, and several eleventh-hour changes of heart, culminating in the restoration of Bertarido, Rodelinda’s husband and the legitimate Lombard king, and you have the glorious tangle that is Rodelinda, an opera of immense beauty for all of its dizzying intricacies.
Stephen Wadsworth’s 2004 production — with sumptuous costumes by Martin Pakledinaz and handsome sets by Thomas Lynch, often bathed in golden hues by lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski — is splendid. Nonetheless, its severe grandeur and the cast’s vocal prowess cannot disguise the fact that Rodelinda is a long show, clocking in at more than four hours on Monday (thanks also to two super-sized intermissions). The staging’s imposing physical scale, live horse, and showy use of the Met’s stage elevator occasionally recall Franco Zeffirelli’s swollen spectacles, though Wadsworth also emphasizes the human dimensions of Handel’s opera. He accomplishes this most deftly via the presence of Rodelinda’s son Flavio (a silent role, fetchingly played by Moritz Linn), a tiny child who embodies the themes of conjugal love and dynastic legitimacy at the heart of Handel’s opera.
Rodelinda stands or falls with its leading lady, who sings more than a quarter of its twenty-odd arias. Renée Fleming, for whom the Met staged this opera, brought to the title role her familiar virtues and foibles. Her voice has lost power at the upper and lower extremes of its range, but it remains a thing of wondrous and lambent beauty, and she uses it fearlessly and with unsparing commitment. (The lady can trill, too, in contrast to many singers cast by the Met in equally florid parts.) Would that Fleming always sang with the divine simplicity that she showed in Io t’abbraccio, Rodelinda’s wrenching duet with Bertarido. Elsewhere (notably in Ritorna o caro e dolce mio tesoro), the blue notes, sliding, and other tics that can mar her otherwise glorious vocalism made their usual unwelcome appearance.
There were no tics or off-center tones in the singing of Andreas Scholl as Bertarido. While his voice may be small for a 4,000-seat theater, its immaculate beauty and the intelligence with which he sang commanded rapt listening and load ovations from the Met audience. Even among today’s abundance of superb countertenors, Scholl stands out—for the great heart and downy-soft attacks he brought to Dove sei, amato bene; for the ferocious virtuosity with which he tore through Vivi, tiranno; and for his quiet authority on stage, making him believable in Bertarido’s multiple roles of husband, father, and king. (This seems to be a moment of grace for Scholl, whose recent Decca CD of Bach cantatas is equally fine.)
There was another first-rate countertenor in the cast: Iestyn Davies, who made a memorable Met debut in the role of the counsellor Unulfo. A winning actor, Davies has a substantial and agreeably pungent voice, and he is a beautiful musician, too, negotiating the never-ending runs in Sono i colpi della sorte and the tricky intervals in Fra tempeste funeste with both precision and a delectable lilt. As Bertarido’s sister Eduige, Stephanie Blythe thrilled with her opulent, poised tone and the sense of power in reserve that she always conveys, qualities that came most to the fore in her final aria, Quanto più fiera tempesta.
Tenor Joseph Kaiser conveyed both the bluster and the latent humanity of the usurper Grimoaldo, no mean feat. While he ran out of steam by the end of the evening, his beautiful enunciation and steady, burnished tone were always a pleasure to hear, nowhere more so than in the seething Io già t’amai and the long, treacherously difficult lines of Prigioniera ho l’alma. As the faithless Garibaldo, bass-baritone Shenyang also seemed to tire as Rodelinda went on (and on), but his is an important voice in the making, and he made a vocal flourish in Di Cupido a thing both mellifluous and simmering with treachery.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played splendidly under Harry Bicket’s alert leadership. Their crowning moment was surely the soulful echoes and plaints that wove their way through Bertarido’s Con rauco mormorio, with Handel in his most inspired pastoral mode. The musicians and the Met’s strong cast brought clarity and grace to the long and sometimes baffling thing that is Rodelinda.
Rodelinda runs through December 10, and will be shown at movie theaters as part of the Live in HD series on December 3. metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.
Marion Lignana Rosenberg is a writer, critic and translator based in New York. Her website is mondo-marion.com.