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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Opera Review: One for the Diva

The Met's goes for baroque, reviving Rodelinda.

Marital bliss: Rodelinda (Renée Fleming, left) is embraced by Bertarido (Andreas Scholl.)
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met's revival of Rodelinda is the company's latest effort on behalf of soprano Renée Fleming. In presenting this comparatively obscure Handel opera, the presumed goal is to preserve the superstar's interpretation of the title role, into the ongoing Met Live in HD series. But in catering to the diva, the company has revived a dull entertainment.


Rodelinda is Handel's 19th opera. The title character is based on a real person, a 6th century Lombard queen. At the opera's opening (this is one of those plots where you need to know what happened before the curtain rises, like Die Walküre or Il Trovatore, Rodelinda's husband has been usurped and presumed killed. Of course, he's not really dead, but we'll get to that in a moment.


At the Monday night opener, Ms. Fleming's biggest assets were her good-natured manner and a majestic presence. This quality was evident even in the opening scene, which found the singer chained to a bed in a bizarre echo of Rosenkavalier. (Octavian was not present.) In the later acts, Ms. Fleming's voice developed a slight, but audible flutter in the coloratura passages. A hard edge emerged when her instrument was put under pressure and brought above the stave. Most problematic, an Act III aria, with high notes that repeatedly sharp.


Far more impressive: mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Eduige, the courtier whose jealousy helps drive the opera's complex plot. Ms. Blythe is an old-school diva with a sturdy instrument and stage presence. She dominated the scenes she was in, especially the lengthy aria that opens Act II. With roles like this and Fricka in the new Ring Cycle, the robust mezzo is now a house favorite.

Handel creates some unusual ensembles for Rodelinda, with a cast that includes two countertenors. Andreas Scholl was strong as Rodelinda's husband Bertarido, although his voice slipped into its normal register at one point, he recovered. But why does Bertarido have to sing his final aria running from room to room as the sets slide across the stage? Countertenor Iestyn Davies made his Met debut in the smaller role of Unulfo. Mr. Davies sang with great agility and the promise of bigger roles to come.

Tenor Joseph Kaiser was a convincing bad guy as Grimoaldo. Out to to seize the throne of Lombardy and marry Rodelinda, Mr. Kaiser was passionate, dastardly and ultimately forgiven (by Ms. Blythe)He was undermined by a clumsy, almost laughable sword-fight with Mr. Scholl in Act III. Baritone Shenyang was a convincing heavy, with a smooth delivery and a pleasing, dark instrument. In the half-empty pit, Harry Bickett conducted the small orchestra with flair, playing the continuo parts himself from the harpsichord.

Stephen Wadsworth's production is an anomaly in Peter Gelb's Met, an example of the hyper-realistic style that characterized the previous administration. These huge sets might be recycled (perhaps incorporated Simon Boccanegra.) Scenery slides in and out, like subway trains arriving in a station. Unnecessary effects are common, like a gardener who spends all his time planting impatiens onstage, and a gratuitous use of the house mega-elevator for the prison scene.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.