At long last the Metropolitan Opera is performing one of the greatest of Handel's two dozen works for the operatic stage, "Rodelinda," only the fourth Handel opera in the company's history. As conceived by Stephen Wadsworth and conducted by Harry Bicket, both making their Met debuts, and sung by a magnificent cast, this production is a red-letter event in the world of opera.
With international diva and the Met's own prima donna, Renee Fleming, in the title role, the success of "Rodelinda" seemed guaranteed.
But a stunning performance by the enchanting countertenor David Daniels provides an unexpected frisson of emotional excitement to the beautiful production staged by Wadsworth (famed for his productions of Handel's "Xerxes") with stylish country-estate sets by Thomas Lynch and ravishing 18th-century costumes by Martin Pakledinaz.
Handel set his music to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym after an earlier opera by Antonio Salvi based on a play by Pierre Corneille. It was first performed at the King's Theater in London's Haymarket in 1725 and was an immediate hit, notable for its important tenor role, a rarity with Handel. "Rodelinda" is that perfect commixture of lyricism and drama that marks Handel as the greatest composer for the stage between Monteverdi and Mozart.
The opera was all but forgotten in the 19th century, but was rediscovered after World War I when there was a revival of interest in Handel's operas, first in Germany, then in England. "Rodelinda" was the first Handel opera staged in the 20th century, and since it was impossible to cast the castrato parts as Handel intended, these roles were generally assigned to a woman or a countertenor as the role of Bertarido has been given Daniels.
Bertarido is a Lombard king, driven from the throne of Milan by a usurper, Grimoaldo, who holds Bertarido's wife, Rodelinda, and their small son under house arrest. Rodelinda, thinking at last that her husband is dead, agrees to marry Grimoaldo to save her son's life, but when Bertarido returns to the Milanese court in disguise, Grimoaldo's machinations are thrown into disarray, enabling Rodelinda to remain faithful to her husband.
The role of Rodelinda is a demanding one with eight big arias and a despairing duet with Bertarido that is a highlight of the production, a perfect blending of Fleming's luminous soprano sound, lovely in the rendering of florid Baroque ornamentation, with that of Daniel's virile though high-placed countertenor. Fleming's radiant beauty and Daniel's commanding stage presence only add to the magic of their performances.
The important tenor role is that of Grimoaldo, sung by South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg in his Met debut. He is an artist with a light, bright voice and solid dramatic instincts whose future at the Metropolitan promises to be a brilliant one. Other male roles are the villainous Garibaldo, robustly sung by handsome Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, and Unulfo, an adviser to Grimoaldo who is secretly allied to Bertarido, sung effectively by another countertenor, Bejun Mehta.
The secondary female role is that of Eduige, Bertarido's sister who also catches Grimoaldo's roving eye. She is sung by the Met's rising mezzo-soprano, Stephanie Blythe, whose voice is an instrument of impressive power and opulence. The cast is rounded out by Zachary Vail Elkind, a 10-year-old who takes the non-speaking role of Rodelinda's son, Flavio, with sweetness and charm.
The Metropolitan Opera orchestra musicians responded to English conductor Bicket, a Handel specialist, with notable sensitivity, drawing from the glorious score with its inexhaustible wealth of melody a challenge to play even more transparently than usual. We can only hope this production will be recorded for a grateful posterity.
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