30 May 2013

Handel’s Rodrigo by Operamission

Nothing inspires fable quite like defeat. The great riddle of Spanish history is how the Christian Visigoths managed to lose the Iberian peninsula to the Moors in one small battle in 711 and took eight hundred years to get it back.

Myth focuses, as myths do, not on dull defects of administration but on the morals of Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king. A youthful usurper in any case, he was also said to have seduced a certain Florinda, whose father, Julian, governor of Ceuta across in Africa, invited the Moors, newly converted to Islam, to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and avenge the girl’s honor. They did, in a way.

Was there really a Florinda? A Julian? We don’t know, but the story evolved into several operas, most recently Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo , which introduced a young tenor named Domingo to the New York City Opera forty years back. Handel set the story in 1707, merely the second of his forty surviving operas and the first written on his apprentice visit to Italy. In his version, treacherous Rodrigo, inspired by his noble, long-suffering wife, Esilena, abdicates in favor of Florinda’s child, and there is no Arab invasion to clutter the happy ending called for by opera seria convention. Autres temps, autres Moors?

Operamission, which last year presented the New York premiere of Handel’s first surviving opera, the German-language Almira, in a sparkling, astonishing run of performances (the work will be given by the Boston Early Music Festival in June), gave the American premiere of Rodrigo in May. The libretto, a rather tatterdemalion affair with several bits missing (Handel used to cut whole numbers from old operas when he required a last-minute substitution in some newer work), is a twisty skeleton on which the singers must build dramatic excitement. Emotions of love, revenge, conceit and abrupt magnanimity provide the vocal opportunities, and the subtle orchestral accompaniments are varied and surprising.

The through line is Rodrigo: He has sinned and must pay, but subjects should not raise their hands against their king no matter the provocation. (They do anyway for most of Act II.) While fighting them, Rodrigo must achieve his own self-conquest. It’s a pity his first aria is missing: We have the text, in which he advises Florinda to revel in the memory of the pleasures they have shared. Rodrigo’s pride prepares us for his comeuppance, and it would have been interesting to hear Handel depict such unlikely sentiments. Instead, we open (after a very long dance-y overture) with Florinda in a fury, which will remain unappeased till the final scene, when her lover is deposed, her son enthroned and a new lover swears devotion. Florinda’s rage drives the plot every time anyone is willing to compromise, but she’s not the prima donna, a position held by Rodrigo’s sublime wife.

The lobby of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street is divided into two parts by a curtain, and conversation by the elevators often intrudes on the musical half, while the performance space tests the inventiveness of the company and the tolerance of the audience. This may not be unlike conditions in the small, noisy, candlelit private opera houses of Handel’s time. Operamission also provided no sets or costumes to speak of. The tableaux of Rodrigo’s libretto are more easily placed than were the confusions of Almira last year, and the audience was seated around the room with the fourteen musicians of the Handel Band, led by violinist Joan Plana in the center. The band included baroque oboes, bassoon, cello and bass—there were no brasses in the score, but oboes ingeniously stand in for them in typically Handelian martial numbers. This closeness made the whole score more interesting, intelligible accompaniment: You could distinguish the separate parts chosen to signal different emotions in a way that a modern covered theater pit tends to obscure.

Rodrigo calls for six singers and fully half of them were castrati at the premiere in Florence. Today these roles go to countertenors, and at the Operamission performances, one marveled at the variety of them now singing professionally. Nicholas Tamagna, the Rodrigo, burst onto the scene with a brilliant, trumpet-flavored sound that immediately signaled: I’m the leading man. Tamagna’s brashness set us up to be surprised by the superb melancholy of his singing of later scenes as the king’s fortunes declined and fell. This is a wonderful voice that has delighted me on many occasions, its soft colors as appealing as the brassy ones, and he is a fine actor, but on this occasion his singing was not infrequently a bit below pitch. Christopher Newcomer, as his opponent Evanco (who ends up with Florinda), has a thinner, more soprano sound that ran out of steam in the last act where Handel cruelly assigns him four arias to express a range of gloat and amorous satisfaction. Daniel Bubeck sang the two-aria role of Fernando, a general, with an alto of such sensuous quality that one regretted he was a fighter, not a lover. He was also the only singer of the night who gave us something like a genuine trill. Everyone in the cast could manage Handelian passagework brilliantly, a skill in demand for any church singing, but baroque opera calls for other ornaments as well.

Madeline Bender brought a dark, chesty soprano to the fumious Florinda. She had the full flood of sound for wrath but the baroque repertory seems an uncomfortable fit for her vocal character and her ornamentation was uneven. I’d peg her for the romantic repertory, where the emotions are just as intense and she can let herself go. Dísella Lárusdóttir, the bright-voiced Woglinde in the Met’s recent Ring, sang Esilena, Rodrigo’s long-suffering queen, the largest role in the opera, which may explain why she sang from the score all night, as other singers did occasionally. (Was rehearsal time too brief?) Her soprano made a nice contrast with Bender’s, more metallic and focused, and she does wonderful slow-swelling tones to express her sighs of sympathy and renunciation. But pathetic emotions did not allow much scope to the brightness of her upper register, and when she did ascend to the stratosphere, pitch became wayward. Too, her Italian could use polishing.

John Carlo Pierce, the Giuliano (Florinda’s brother not her father in this version), had the ungrateful tenor role, the lowest in the opera. Handel tenors tend to sound grainy, less heroic or appealing than the tenor protagonists the nineteenth century would invent as their romantic leads, but Pierce has a most agreeable sound, phrased beautifully and ornamented with force and charm.

Jennifer Peterson, who played harpsichord continuo and prompted the singers, devised the edition used on this occasion, a decent realization of imperfect manuscript survivals, and Jeff Caldwell directed the clear but rather sketchy acting. Peterson has spoken of hoping to go right through the Handel operatic canon, a venture that has frustrated previous companies. Her first task, it would seem to me, is to find a more dedicated venue, perhaps a larger one—word of mouth sold out the last of the three performances of Rodrigo.

John Yohalem

Click here for production photos.

Cast and production information:

Esilena: Dísella Lárusdóttir; Florinda: Madeline Bender; Rodrigo: Nicholas Tamagna; Giuliano: John Carlo Pierce; Evanco: Christopher Newcomer; Fernando: Daniel Bubeck. Operamission Handel Band conducted by Joan Plana. At the Gershwin Hotel. New York City. Performance of May 23.