A Naif Sees Handel’s Rodelinda at the Met

Grant Chu Covell

[January 2005.]

I can mark the differences between Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, Messiaen’s St. Francis and Ligeti’s Grand Macabre in a heartbeat, and I know a good deal of the standard rep but have a limited knowledge of opera’s conventions, its singers and their legacies. I attend live opera for education and pleasure in equal degrees.

My wife and I occasionally depart Boston to visit family in the NYC area. Once there, we also try to get to the Met. Last year we caught two productions: Benvenuto Cellini at 2004’s start (spirited music including a red-haired Berlioz who wanders around the stage scribbling), and Handel’s Rodelinda at year’s end.

Rodelinda (HWV 19, 1725), one of the season’s big draws, featured Renée Fleming. The December 27th performance was sold out. Consequently, this Xenakis fan stood for four hours. I figured if I were to experience a Handel opera, it may as well be with a top-flight team. A happy survivor, I’m delighted to report that Rodelinda ranks among the best Met productions I’ve seen, a sublime meld of singing, staging and drama.

Handel’s position in the pantheon is puzzling. Perhaps it’s the nauseating radio repetition of the Fireworks and Water Music. I like to think Schoenberg’s Handelian ambivalence doesn’t influence me (see here). I must confess that one of my own electro-acoustic compositions consists of variations on a Handel keyboard sonata. However, apart from Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Fleming’s recent aria discs, Rodelinda was my first exposure to a Handel opera.

Fleming (Rodelinda, queen of Milan) opened the opera doubly restrained. Chained to a bed, the soprano employed her voice modestly so that four hours later she could warm to a luscious glow. The take-aways were Stephanie Blythe (Eduige, sister of the deposed and presumed dead king Bertarido) who is always a pleasure to see, and most splendidly, countertenors David Daniels (Bertarido) and Bejun Mehta (Unulfo, Bertarido’s trusted ally). Such expression, clarity and penetrating tone from the men’s high voices! Mehta, the more relaxed and carefree, didn’t diminish Daniels’ impressive instrument and flair. Kobie van Rensberg was the eventually repentant usurper Grimoaldo and John Relyea sang the treacherous Garibaldo’s part.

Appearing to unfold in real-time, Rodelinda consists largely of a string of solos, except for Fleming and Daniels’ magical duet at the close of Act II, along with the obligatory, we’re-all-happy-now ensemble at the end. I’ve an uncle who regards this opera as a sporting event: The performers get several chances to outdo themselves and their peers. Handel’s shrewdness at constructing an evening-length entertainment with such a sure dramatic hand, despite the work’s contrived ending, is truly impressive. The Italian libretto neatly enshrouds cumbersome word-painting and awkward prosody. Even after January first’s live radio-broadcast, I can recall only a few tunes, yet I’m convinced that Nyman appropriated Garibaldo’s Act II, Scene 4 aria, “Tirannia gli diede il regno.”

Conductor Harry Bicket kept the Metropolitan Orchestra’s modern instruments in a fittingly tight ensemble. Without its full complement of brass and winds, the pit looked under-populated. Two harpsichords (one player for tuttis while Bicket conducted, the other for Bicket himself during the recitatives) and a theorbo player seemed out of place in that garish theatre. Perhaps owing to the modern strings’ inevitable edge, the winds were rarely audible. Given Levine’s Wagner and post-Romantic tendencies, the very notion of a Met Handel appears as a curiosity, albeit a most welcome one. Bicket has had experience leading non-period players, though he sounds more at home with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (more Handel arias: Hunt-Lieberson on Avie AV 0030, Fleming on Decca 0003160-02, and Daniels on Virgin 45365).

Stephen Wadsworth’s production features Thomas Lynch’s mobile storybook sets. I’m a softie for theatrical mechanics. When a stage moves for all to see, the production scores big points in my book. The first act’s scenes slid from audience right to left, revealing a bleak bedroom, courtyard, cemetery then stable, with a live horse. In Act II, a lavish balconied library replaces the bedroom. For the third act’s prison scenes, the set rises to reveal a dungeon, a regretful Grimoaldo idling above a languishing Bertarido.

Now that Levine spends more time up my way with the BSO, it’s possible that the Met will consider other pre-Classical operas. Who knows, maybe they’ll stage Rameau or Vivaldi. Even seated, other Met productions have worn me out. Handel’s directness transported this attendee to a calm place. Standing was a cinch. I’d happily do it again.

P.S. It delights me to report that the Met lobby shop had four copies of Lachenmann’s Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (ECM 1858/59) on its shelves.