Sunday, December 4, 2011

Handel’s Rodelinda

There were maybe ten cars in the vast parking lot of the Brooklyn Park Regal Cinema when I pulled in at eleven Saturday morning. An elderly couple, neither of them much more than five feet tall, were walking gingerly toward the entrance across the asphalt under the dismal gray sky. Both carried canes, and I heard a middle-aged man say to his wife as I got out of my car: “This looks like the right crowd.”

When I asked for a ticket to “the opera,” having forgotten the name of the rarely-staged Handel work I was attending, the burly black teenager in the booth said, “Senior discount?”
“What’s the cut-off?” I asked.
After a split-second of hesitation, I shook my head. No. And forked over my $24.

Rodelinda is the story of the wife of a slain king who must marry the usurping tyrant to save the life of her son. It will come as no surprise to opera-goers that the king isn’t really dead. He returns in disguise with the hope, not of regaining his kingdom, but merely of rescuing his wife and son. He’s crestfallen to discover that she’s agreed to remarry, not knowing her bitter rationale, and certainly unaware that her vengeful condition for going through with the ceremony is that the tyrant must kill her son before her very eyes. Grimoaldo finds he can’t do it, and is eventually sent into a mental tail-spin as his conscience revolts at the crimes he must commit to retain the seat of dictatorial power. (Richard III he’s not.)

Throw in a trusted servant, a Machiavellian advisor, and a devoted sister to thicken the plot, and you have the ingredients for a first-rate opera. The sets are lavish and suitably Italianate, the orchestra maintains a subdued “period” flavor, with two harpsichords, no less! Fleming and Stephanie Blythe deliver their da capo arias with lovely agility, and the male leads are hardly less engaging.

Yet there seems to be a slight disjunct at the heart of this work. Throughout the afternoon, the two appealing elements I’ve just described—the melody and the drama—were somewhat at odds. And the fact that two of the four male leads were sung by counter-tenors didn’t help much. Though their voices were both very fine, the unusually high range they employed was not meant to be a reflection of character, but merely an convention of the era during which the opera was written, when castrati were the superstars of the genre.

It would be pointless, I suppose, to try to “work around” or modernize the piece by cutting the arias in half or recasting the castrati roles as baritones. As Renee Fleming herself pointed out in a recent interview, part of the appeal of the genre lies in its clarity and grace. The drama may be similar at times to the darkest turns of Simon Boccenegra or Rigoletto, but the vocal passages are invariably lilting and intricate.

It came as a surprise to me that one of the most lovely and memorable arias in Rodelinda was the heroine’s demand that the tyrant execute her son! There were times when I succumbed to the temptation to close my eyes to the drama and simply listen. And in doing do, I may have been adding to the historic accuracy of the experience. In Handel’s day, after all, subtitles didn’t exist, and few in the audience knew Italian.

Some critics objected to Italian opera at the time on precisely those grounds. If was felt that nothing edifying could be transmitted in a language no one could understand. Richard Steele, writing in the Tatler in April of 1709, observed:
“..the stage being a Entertainment of the Reason and all our Faculties, this Way of being pleased with the Suspence of ’em for Three Hours altogether, and being given up to the shallow Satisfaction of the Eyes and Ears only, seems to arise rather from the Degeneracy of our Understanding, than an Improvement of our Diversions.”
We might note in passing that Steele’s friend Joseph Addison had recently written an English-language libretto for an opera that was an utter flop. In any case, the fact that few could understand what was being said hardly seems to be the worst aspect of the opera performances of Handel’s day. As one historian of the era remarks, at the opera people would “play cards, chat, move about, eat oranges and nuts, spit freely, his and yowl at singer they did not like.” Many went simply for the stage effects and the remarkable vocal pyrotechnics of the Italian divas whose exorbitant fees eventually drove Handel to the brink of bankruptcy.

Times have changed, audiences have become more attentive, and I found myself growing increasingly irritated as a woman five rows behind me took fifteen minutes to extract her sandwich from a cheap plastic bag and then undo the Saran wrap. Reviving the eighteenth-century habit, I got up and moved long before she'd taken her first bite.

But with the help of subtitles, I left the theater five hours later, just as darkness was descending, not only buoyed by the boundless lyricism of Handel’s music but also more than a little moved by Grimoaldo’s crisis of conscience and abdication of power, Bertarido’s magnanimity, Rodelinda’s vehement defiance, and her son’s precocious courage.

Back home, I built a fire and scoured the shelves for a means of sustaining the mood. Here’s what I came up with:

Kiri Te Kanawa: Sorceress—A Handel Celebration with Christopher Hogwood (1994)
Emma Kirkby: Handel/Italian Cantatas (1981)
Natalie Dessay: Handel/Delirio (2005)
Lisa Saffer: Handel/Arias for Cuzzoni (1990)
Danielle de Niese: Handel Arias (2008)
And finally, Handel’s complete opera Aci, Galatea e Polifeo(1987)

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account, but I will say that the women with lighter voices—Kirkby, Dessay, and Saffer—wrap themselves around the music especially well.

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