Review: 'Rodelinda' at Met Is Masterpiece
NEW YORK - George Frideric Handel's "Rodelinda" was a huge success at its London premiere in 1725, but it soon vanished from the stage and - like the composer's three dozen other operas - languished unperformed for nearly 200 years.
Lovely music, went the prevailing assessment, but basically just a long string of arias with no dramatic coherence.
Yet today, "Rodelinda" is recognized as a masterpiece that can enthrall a modern audience if it's cast with first-rate singers and presented in a lively production. Both requirements are met handsomely in the production that premiered Thursday at the Metropolitan Opera, starring soprano Renee Fleming in the title role and directed by Stephen Wadsworth.
Adapting their plot from an obscure eighth-century history, Handel and his librettist streamlined the story to focus on Rodelinda, queen of Milan, and her husband, King Bertarido, who has been overthrown by the tyrant Grimoaldo. When the opera begins, Bertarido is believed dead, and Grimoaldo is plotting to marry Rodelinda, but it turns out the deposed monarch is alive and hoping to reunite with his wife and young son. A subplot involves the king's sister, Eduige, and a villainous court counselor, Garibaldo.
It's true that the opera consists almost entirely of solo arias (28 of them, plus one duet and a final ensemble). But Handel builds the dramatic tension so skillfully that the emotional stakes keep rising during each of the three acts until the happy resolution brings a genuine sense of rejoicing.
Fleming, one of today's operatic superstars, has tackled a diverse repertory at the Met, triumphing in Strauss, Mozart and Verdi, but having less success in Bellini's bel canto relic "Il Pirata." As Rodelinda, she sang with commitment and attention to detail, though her soft-grained voice took awhile to warm up. She hit her stride in Act 2 with a ravishing performance of the aria "Ritorna, o caro" as she awaited her reunion with Bertarido (countertenor David Daniels) then joined him in a meltingly beautiful account of the duet that closes the act before he is led off to prison.
Daniels sang with fire and admirable dexterity throughout the evening, though his middle register at times sounded underpowered. Another bravura countertenor, Bejun Mehta, sang the supporting role of Unulfo, Bertarido's ally in the court. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe was magnificent in her few opportunities to shine as Eduige; as Grimoaldo, South African tenor Kobe van Rensburg made a strong debut, with a voice of modest size but unforced flexibility. Bass John Relyea was compelling as Garibaldo and gets extra points for singing while mounting and riding off on a horse.
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