Handel’s 1725 Rodelinda

SAN FRANCISCO — 9/17/05

Handel’s 1725 Rodelinda is a majestic and yet rarely-performed opera … but rare no longer. “Rodelinda of the West”: Handel Opera Features a Cast that “Will Be Talked About for Years

By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO — 9/17/05:

Handel’s 1725 Rodelinda is a majestic and yet rarely-performed opera … but rare no longer. The entire “German Handel revival” began with Rodelinda in Göttingen on the work’s 200th anniversary, and the 21st century is chock full of it: Munich in 2003, the Met last year, a San Francisco run opening tonight, and a Canadian Opera production next month, among others.

The San Francisco production comes from Munich, directed by David Alden, on Paul Steinberg’s spectacular sets, conducted to perfection by Roy Goodman (with stunning continuo performances from the orchestra principals and John Churchwell’s harpsichord), and featuring a cast that will be talked about for years. Rodelinda is new to the War Memorial, but not to the company: in a memorable SF Opera Showcase production in 1985, Adler Fellows sang the roles, including Dolora Zajick in the castrato role of Bertarido (the good king, deposed by the evil Grimoaldo)… wearing a beard.

In tonight’s cast, there was another Adler Fellow, Gerald Thompson, making a sensational debut as Bertarido’s servant, a countertenor holding his own against the great international star in the king’s role, David Daniels. Both singers had a special night, singing both heroically and lyrically, right along with Catherine Naglestad’s true diva performance in the title role. In this opera consisting of individual arias, there is only one duet, closing Act 2: Naglestad and Daniels brought tears to many eyes in the audience with their melting (and yet “properly Baroque”) lyricism, the two voices merging into one transcendent sound on the wings of the music from Goodman’s band-on-fire in the pit – one of several, of many magic moments.

The two bad guys, Grimoaldo and his hatchet man Garibaldo, were sung by the debuting tenor Paul Nilon (well, but with occasionally audible effort) and baritone Umberto Chiummo, respectively. Another debut, Phyllis Pancella, as Eduige, fits right into this cast of outstanding singing-actors.

Rodelinda is another good reason to give thanks again to the brave folks who had brought supertitles into the opera house not all that long ago. Corneille’s 1652 drama about the King of the Lombards is dense enough, but the Salvi-Perti libretto Handel used is cheaply sensational, confused and confusing, with weirdly arbitrary shifts and turns. It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, but if it weren’t for the music and the supertitles, Rodenlinda would not even make it into the NBC drama lineup. Maybe Fox.

Alden’s direction fits well into general director Pamela Rosenberg’s schizophrenic approach to Baroque opera: provide the best possible musical forces for the production, but don’t trust the music to make it on its own – or the audience to be able to appreciate the work by itself. And so, once again, there is superb, affecting singing, but always against a consistently stupid effort to sabotage the performances. Without exception, every aria is accompanied (and intruded upon) by some irrelevant, noisy, distracting stage business.

Not satisfied with the singers dancing to their own arias, the “beware of static opera” approach dictates such shticks as a rifle being assembled downstage during one aria, a character entangled in a chair and falling down upstage while Daniels is singing his heart out elsewhere – every time, without fail, there is the attempt to “liven up” arias by doing something distracting on stage. It was a virtual relief when the singer of an aria was directed to do his or her own livening – Nilon pirouetting while singing, Pancelle straddling a man during the aria, Daniels taking his shoes and socks off, etc. – rather than being exposed to the busywork of someone else.

In truth, the choice is not between static or lively opera, but between respecting and trusting the music and the performers… or not.

The production’s sets (in Pat Collins’ lighting) should have been more than enough in themselves to provide the distraction this opera administration constantly craves (in its last season before David Gockley takes over the helm). Unlike the directorial monkey-business, the sets deserve acknowledgment for their artistic-architectural-engineering values. From walls that literally close in on the characters, to a row of gigantic papier-mache statues (moved, naturally, during an aria, all the better to distract attention), to the second act under a bridge (“enlivened” by some rain, perhaps to connect with a reference to water), and all that high-rise action in Act 3, there was much to watch and appreciate… if you needed a respite from the music.

In tonight’s cast, there was another Adler Fellow, Gerald Thompson, making a sensational debut as Bertarido’s servant, a countertenor holding his own against the great international star in the king’s role, David Daniels. Both singers had a special night, singing both heroically and lyrically, right along with Catherine Naglestad’s true diva performance in the title role. In this opera consisting of individual arias, there is only one duet, closing Act 2: Naglestad and Daniels brought tears to many eyes in the audience with their melting (and yet “properly Baroque”) lyricism, the two voices merging into one transcendent sound on the wings of the music from Goodman’s band-on-fire in the pit – one of several, of many magic moments. Not satisfied with the singers dancing to their own arias, the “beware of static opera” approach dictates such shticks as a rifle being assembled downstage during one aria, a character entangled in a chair and falling down upstage while Daniels is singing his heart out elsewhere – every time, without fail, there is the attempt to “liven up” arias by doing something distracting on stage. It was a virtual relief when the singer of an aria was directed to do his or her own livening – Nilon pirouetting while singing, Pancelle straddling a man during the aria, Daniels taking his shoes and socks off, etc. – rather than being exposed to the busywork of someone else.

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