Nicola Francesco Haym (libretto, based on a libretto by Antonio Salvi), George Frideric Handel (composter) Rodelinda / the performance I saw as a live HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of New York on December 3, 2011
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Saturday, December 10, 2011
The Conscience of a King (on Handel's opera Rodelinda)
the conscience of a king
Before Grimoaldo's usurpation of the throne he had been offered the hand of Bertarido's sister, Eduige (Stephanie Blythe), which would have made him the heir apparent to the throne, but she has several times denied him, and now that he has illegally taken over, he lusts for Bertarido's widow, Rodelinda. When he approaches her with his desires, however, she is outraged and insists upon her devotion to her former husband and the protection of his child.
Meanwhile, Eudige discovers that her brother is still alive, meeting him upon a pathway in the night, reassuring Bertarido of his wife's constancy. Unulfo brings Rodelinda to him, and the two are lovingly united, joyful to be in each other's company again. At that very moment, however, they are discovered by Grimoaldo, who orders Bertarido's arrestment and death.
On the surface Rodelinda seems a somewhat confusing story about a King, Bertarido (Andreas Scholl) who has just been defeated, and presumably killed, by Grimoaldo (Joseph Kaiser). The former queen, Rodelinda (Renée Fleming) and her son Flavio have been immediately arrested and put into chains, sequestered away—at least in the Met production—in what seems like an abandoned bedroom somewhere in the bowels of the castle.
Meanwhile Grimoaldo's advisor Garibaldo (Shenyang) prods his master on to more evil deeds, insisting that only the forceful, even the brutal are fit to rule. He has his own plans, moreover, to take the throne for himself, by marrying Eduige and becoming the rightful ruler.
Only the court advisor Unulfo (Iestyn Davies) knows that Bertarido is still alive, pretending death in order to evaluation the situation and retrieve Rodelinda and his son from harm's way.
Through her lovely arias we know that Rodelinda is loyal to her husband, denying the approaches of Grimoaldo. But when Bertarido shows up, to be hidden away in a nearby horse barn by his friend Unulfo, he overhears yet another encounter between Rodelinda and Grimoaldo in which she first insists of her love for her dead husband, but then suddenly seems to change heart, accepting Grimoaldo's proposal for marriage. What the two men hiding in the barn have not seen is that Garibaldo has threatened to kill her son if she does not give in, the knife put to the son's neck.
Suddenly Bertarido's world collapses around him as he believes that his wife has not been able to remain faithful. Unulfo attempts to cheer him with an aria that relays the underlying theme of Handel's work: what seems unbearable today will look different in the future. Performed as it is between the two countertenors there is a slightly homoerotic suggestion in the plea that Bertarido should try to forget his wife's faithlessness.
Unulfo suggests that Bertarido tell his wife that he is still living, an idea which, at first, Bertarido rejects, but then perceives that it will help to torture her for her deeds. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Rodelinda has no intentions of becoming Grimoaldo's wife, insisting that if she is to marry him that he must personally kill her young son, that she cannot be a mother to the boy would have been king and wife of the throne's usurper both. The ploy works, as Grimoaldo backs down, and Rodelinda is freed, temporarily at least, from any vows.
In collaboration, Eduige and Unulfo plan Bertarido's rescue, she secretly passing him a sword, Unulfo determined to lead him through a secret garden passage to his son, Rondelinda and escape. However, when he comes to guide Bertarido to safety, in the dark room where he lies Bertarido mistakes the intruder as one of Grimoaldo's henchmen come to kill him, and he stabs Unulfo, who, although badly wounded, still pulls Bertarido to safety.
Grimoaldo, meanwhile is in deep torment. All that he has sought has slipped his fingers. His first love Eudige has rejected him and Rodelinda has declared him a monster. Power has not fulfilled him, and he is tormented by conscience and his dark deeds. Finding him in such despair, Garibaldo his disgusted with his lack of will and determines to put a sword through his heart. At that very moment Bertarido and his family are passing, and the former king leaps into action, killing Garibaldo and, in so doing, saving Grimoaldo's life.
Recognizing his position, Grimoaldo is only too happy to give up the throne to its rightful king. Turning again to Eudige she finally accepts his apologies, and the happy survivors sing in celebration of the future.
Just recounting this breathless plot nearly exhausts me. One by one each of the major performers sing marvelous arias revealing their feelings and situations. This production was particularly blessed with the glorious soprano of Renée Fleming who premiered Rodelinda at the
Met in 2004. Both countertenors were splendid, while Stephanie Blythe performed with her usual high artistry. The surprise of the opera, to me, was the tenor voice of Joseph Kaiser, who as the opera proceeded changed in both costume and voice from a seemingly pompous and puffed up murderer to a handsome man of sorrow and conscience. It was a remarkably revealing performance both in its musical expression and acting abilities.
In all this was a marvelous opera. If only the director, Stephen Wadsworth—who the singers all highly praised—had not felt it necessary to keep everything in motion by bringing in and out ancillary individuals during each aria, and arming his singers with flowerpots, books, even toys which at some point were often flung or crashed into the set. We understand that Handel's arias are structured with a beginning theme that elaborated on and repeated several times before returning us again to the original theme to be repeated once again, but that does not mean that we need be continually distracted. If the singers are good enough actors—as all of these were—to revitalize and slightly revise each repeated phrase, the music enwraps us into a kind of trance that works against this production's realist interruptions.
Although the set was quite lovely, and the concept of moving horizontality through different sets across the gigantic Met stage worked well in several scenes, it appeared that the designers and director feared that the audience might fall asleep without the constant interruptions of everyday life. Although he is a powerful storyteller and a masterful dramatist, Handel is not Verdi.
Nonetheless, with such great singers I would love to see the Met look into yet more Handel and other Baroque operas. Rodelinda was a joy.
Los Angeles, December 9, 2011