This is the first production I have ever seen of Handel's opera Rodelinda. Although its subject is royal jiggery-pokery it eschews the witchcraft, magic and special effects of some of Handel's earlier operas. The action takes place in real time during one day in the palace of the King of Lombardy during the 7th century. Director Stephen Wadsworth updates the action by about 1100 years to the 18th century, more or less contemporary with when the opera was written.
This is a chamber piece with only six singing characters and no chorus but the spectacular set moves horizontally from left to right as the characters move through various rooms of the King's Palace. It also moves vertically for the scene in the dungeons so the experience is, visually, very exciting.
Grimoaldo has usurped the throne of King Bertarido. He is betrothed to Bertarido's sister Edwige but lusts after the deposed queen Rodelina. There are two counsellors, Gariboldo, who schemes to take the throne for himself and Unulfo, who is secretly loyal to Bertarido.
The plot, frankly, is a bit of a mess. Bertarido is presumed to be dead but we do not know in what circumstances. He turns up at the palace and saves Grimoaldo from the scheming Garibaldo, whereupon the grateful usurper gives up the throne and everyone lives happily ever after. Grimoaldo must be the softest tyrant in history, perpetually plagued by doubts but the motivations of the other characters are equally opaque notwithstanding the fact that they spend the best part of three hours pouring out their deepest emotions.
This, being a Handel opera, is what we have all come to hear. One by one the six characters display their emotions in a series of show-stopping da capo arias. We have to wait until the end of Act II for the only duet in the opera, the wonderful "Io t'abbraccio" between Rodelina and Bertarido. Stephen Wadsworth choreographs the action well so that there is always something happening during the long arias but the action never detracts from the singing.
The Met have assembled a world-class cast to handle the vocal pyrotechnics of this very difficult opera. Renée Fleming, uncharacteristically, seems to have trouble with the long, flowing melody lines of her first couple of arias but, after that she is in fine voice. Even better is contralto Stephanie Blythe as Edwige. Stephanie Blythe is a classically proportioned singer with an exciting lower register. The very high counter-tenor Andreas Scholl makes a very sweet sound as Bertarido. I also loved the somewhat deeper counter-tenor of Iesten Davies as Unulfo.Tenor Joseph Kaiser is a somewhat bland Grimoaldo. Shenyang, as Garibaldo, is the only singer to trouble the bass clef. He has to die for this, so he misses the rousing quintet with which all the other characters end the opera.
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