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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Opera Review: A Private Little War

operamission presents Handel's Rodrigo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

(Ed. note: It is the general policy of Superconductor to publish all concert and opera reviews in a timely fashion, generally within 24 to 48 hours of the performance. However, due to an unforeseen illness, this review of last Tuesday night's operamission performance of Handel's Rodrigo is going up today. Mostly because I'm finally feeling well enough to write. Thank you for your patience and understanding.--Paul J. Pelkonen, Editor, Superconductor.)

The young Georg Friedrich Händel. Painter unknown.
Georg Friedrich Händel was astonishingly prolific. The German-born composer, who made his fortune introducing baroque opera (and later, oratorio) to English audiences composed 42 examples of that genre, most of them of excellent quality. Last Tuesday night, the small operamission company gave New Yorkers a chance to hear one of his early efforts with the New York premiere of Rodrigo. Written in 1707  and premiered in Florence, this was Händel's fifth opera and first effort for the stage in Italy.

Although the extant score of Rodrigo remains incomplete (the opening scenes are lost) it is still a compelling example of the composer's early style. This performance, in the lobby space of the Gershwin Hotel on E. 27th St. showed this to be more than just a succession of virtuoso arias for counter-tenors, tenor and sopranos. Rodrigo, especially in its later acts, works as a scrappy, visceral drama of civil war, anticipating Verdi's Il Trovatore by nearly 150 years.

Like that opera, Rodrigo requires a slew of great voices. Leading the charge was countertenor Nicolas Tamagna in the high-flying title role: a callow king whose philandering leads to civil war in Visigothic Spain. Mr. Tamagna navigated the high tessitura with his potent instrument, singing fearlessly in arias depicting his initial rage and the later ensembles that feature his eventual contrition. This is an impressive talent, a singing actor with formidable technique.

He was matched in passion by his wife Esilena, played by Dísella Lárusdóttir. She spent the entire evening as the opera's peacemaker, trying to stop the bloody conflict and forgive her husband for his erring ways. This moving performance was undermined by the soprano's continual reliance on her score binder, which made acting somewhat awkward. As Florinda, her revenge-minded rival and operatic opposite number, soprano Madeline Bender gave a scorching performance with no score required.

It is a hallmark of the different nature of opera in the early 1700s that the tenor is the lowest role in this show. In this case, it was the duty of John Carlo Pierce to play Giuliano, Florinda's brother and leader of the rebel forces. Mr. Pierce displayed a nimble instrument, singing with fire and virility as he led his invisible armies into battle against the tyrant. Countertenor Christopher Newcomer (who has my favorite name for an opera singer encountered recently) was a convincing third lead as Evanco, Florinda's lover. But he too, remained on book throughout the show.

The performance was conducted from the harpsichord by Jennifer Peterson, the leader and organizer of this little company. She also edited the performing edition used for these shows. Her group, the operamission Handel Band, made their period instruments (including historically accurate double reeds) resound in the hotel lobby. The result: a warm bed for the voices that was surprisingly well balanced. The acting space was simple, a Persian rug and a pair of double doors, with the singers in conventional concert blacks and modern dress. In an era of over-produced shows and director's visions, the spare presentation of this unknown opera spoke volumes.

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