Oh, Handel, let me count the ways I love you. Rodelinda is certainly one of the reasons: a typically baroque opera, with demanding arias, a silly plot, and fantastic music. The story is set during the Longboards rule over Milan. Bertarido, the king, is defeated by Grimoaldo and flees, news arrives that he was killed. Grimoaldo seizes the throne and wants to marry Rodelinda, Bertarido’s wife, to secure his position as a legitimate king and look less like a tyrant and an usurper; he is helped in his endeavor by the treacherous Garibaldo. Bertarido is, of course, still alive; he arrives in Milan in secret, helped by his faithful servant Unulfo, and does not reveal himself to his family, but plots revenge. After several twists and turns, Bertarido kills Garibaldo, forgives Grimoaldo and is reunited with his family. His sister Eduige ends up marrying Grimoaldo. In all this, Bertarido is very passive-aggressive, for being a king. Basically he shames Grimoaldo into submission, points out his evil-doings, and Grimoaldo kind of caves. We all know how well this strategy works, in real life, with bullies.
The production by Claus Guth at the Teatro Real was not the ugliest I’ve seen, but a bit preposterous. The set consisted of a single white revolving house, which showed the facade or the interior. It kept spinning around. The interior of the house featured lots of staircases and walls, so that, depending where the singers were standing, half of the theatre could not see them. I’m not complaining for myself, I had a great seat and could see everything, but once again, a production made for the DVD, and not for the theatre. Ah, of course the action was set in modern times, for NO discernable reason at all. The bad guys were dressed in black and the good guys in white (original!) so much that, when Eduige changes sides, she removes her black gloves to reveal white ones underneath. Gag me with a spoon. Bertarido goes around dressed like a traveling salesman, while all the bad guys have a Mandrake look: black cape, top hat, tail coat. Rodelinda is seen in a series of white evening gowns. Nothing particularly outrageous, but everything absolutely random, no idea, no meaning, nothing.
The only recognizable idea was the son of Rodelinda and Bertarido witnessing silently the whole story either in plain sight, or hidden under tables and such. He is clearly terrified and traumatized by the events, and sees ominous figures, specters representing the various characters of the story, who haunt him and terrorize him. He was played by a small person, actor Fabián Augusto Gómez, who did a remarkable job.
The orchestra was conducted by Ivor Bolton, who is an absolute genius! He manages to extract so many different colors from the orchestra, the dynamics are always intelligent and well thought, and his chemistry with the players and the singers is palpable. The cembalist David Bates gave an incredible performance, the brass were so sweet and in tune, the oboe commanding and confident, everything worked perfectly!
Rodelinda was Lucy Crowe, who I have heard several times now, without being able to get a definite opinion on her. Her voice is suited to the repertoire, and has a fairly decent size and presence. She is musical and intelligent, and she has piano high notes to die for. But there is something in her voice that doesn’t convince me, I can’t really pinpoint it. It’s something in the timbre, she has some overtones that I just don’t like. Ah, don’t listen to me, she’s really good. Her Rodelinda was strong and sweet at the same time, and her performance was very convincing.
Bejun Mehta was Bertarido! Definitely one of the reasons for my trip, I wanted to hear him again after I loved him so much in Jephtha. He is one of my favorite countertenors—albeit some malignant fake friends say that I change favorite countertenor more often than I change undergarments. The part of Bertarido is definitely more challenging than Hamor in Jephtha, and Mehta did do justice to it, but in certain parts his voice was clearly not at ease. Some high notes were a bit strained, some he softened up (wisely) in order to maintain the asset of the voice. In Vivi tiranno he was at the limit, with the coloratura. Honestly, that aria is just a bit too much for countertenors, kind of like Con l’ali di costanza in Ariodante: you really need a woman. Or Fagioli, but I digress. Vivi tiranno was absolutely one of the peaks of the evening: Mehta came to the front of the stage, right in front of Bolton (who was standing taller than usual, in the pit) and it was like a duet between them. Bolton was talking to him, directing only him, reassuring him, like the coach of an gymnast during a tough exercise. It was beautiful to watch. The result was brilliant. Mehta’s interpretation of the low lamenting arias was heart-wrenching; the greatest characteristic of his voice is the variety of colors (countertenors do tend to be a bit monochrome), his palette is remarkable, and he takes full advantage of it in the lyrical parts.
Another star countertenor was playing Unulfo: Lawrence Zazzo. His voice is more monochrome than Mehta’s, but very well set and natural, he was great! The coloratura comes extremely easy to him, and he had at least three incredibly difficult arias to go through. Great stage presence.
Eduige was Sonia Prina, one of my pets! I adore her voice. Yes, I know, she’s not perfect, but she has the kind of imperfections that make me love her. Her alto is deep and resonant, and the coloratura is fantastic. She reminds me of Daniela Barcellona in her delivery: the gusto, the panache, the devil-may-care attitude. I love that. She was great.
Grimoaldo and Garibaldo kind of fell a bit off the radar, for me. Umberto Chiummo did his part as Garibaldo, to be honest, a part some uncertainty in the intonation, and maybe his voice is not too characterized. Jeremy Ovenden, singing Grimoaldo, is a good tenor, with a very high agile voice, but while he sang I kept thinking: 1. why isn’t Richard Croft or Mark Padmore singing this part? 2. why doesn’t Juan Diego Flórez sing this repertoire, instead of those unbearably boring French litanies? Please send answers.