Georg F. Handel: Rodelinda
Rodelinda: Dorothea Röschmann; Bertarido: Michael Chance; Grimoaldo: Paul Nilon; Eduige: Felicity Palmer; Unulfo: Christopher Robson; Garibaldo: Umberto Chiummo
Das Bayerische Staatsorchester, Ivor Bolton
FARAO Classics D 108 060 [DVD]
There was a time, not so long ago, when Handel was a rare bird on the video shelves of opera shops and record retailers, but it seems that with the advent of the slim 'n sexy DVD disc, and (in Europe at least) a more flexible attitude to rights issues between record companies and opera houses, that those days are now, happily, past. The latest offering from Farao Classics is the 3 year old Munich Staatsoper production of his "Rodelinda" with staging by David Alden, music direction by Ivor Bolton, first given at their Festival in 2003. I'm not entirely sure why certain operas get chosen for DVD release and others don't, and this one is a bit of a puzzle for several reasons.
Firstly, when seen live, this production had a spacious, if gloomy and weighty, feel to it - big spaces, long vistas, endless walls of imprisoning brick, that effectively reduced the human characters to tiny figures, fighting the powers of oppression and tyranny that threatened to overwhelm them at every moment. Think old black and white spy films: it's night, it's Vienna, the fascists are everywhere, huge stone statues of "the Boss" (or is it the ex-Boss?) dominate the square, the population is cowering unseen behind endless dark tenement windows, and it's raining. A cigarette flares briefly in the dark shadows, a knife flashes, a woman cries softly and a huddled figure shuffles through the puddles, looking for who knows what, maybe a kingdom. Somewhere in the distant gloom a single red light flashes sadly over a bar-room entrance.
Rodelinda is the story of a brave queen from ancient Lombardy fighting the usurper Grimoaldo, who covets her missing husband Bertarido's throne, and she uses every wile to evade his attempts at seduction. On the stage this worked well visually against the totalitarian landscape she was incarcerated within. But transferred to the small TV screen, there's an obvious problem of scale - how do you effectively represent both the elements of a huge set and tiny, intense, human emotions? Experienced TV director Brian Large has responded by relying heavily on the use of close ups and mid shots. But these are always fighting the low light levels of the set, and it takes a committed viewer to keep a visual memory of the wider picture, only occasionally glimpsed, and reach the meat of the story, and eventually some much-needed broader canvases.
Secondly, although the setting of the drama has been updated to a mittel-european 1950s urban streetscape, replete with fascist tokens, all the dark Mafioso type suits, and calf-length dreary dresses do somewhat depress the eye; it's with relief that we greet even a few sparkling jewels on Eudige's costume or a blinking red and yellow café sign in the glare of a Mercedes' headlights. Rodelinda may be one of Handel's most intense and serious dramas, but you can have too much of a good thing.
Thirdly, the singers are an uneven, if dramatically strong, bunch. Dorothea Roschmann as Rodelinda isn't perhaps in her most favoured fach and makes rather heavy weather of some of the most beautiful arias Handel wrote for soprano, although her bearing is suitably regal and restrained. She is at her best in the arias of contempt and anger, when she confronts the tyrant Grimoaldo or his traitorous henchman Garibaldo. As Bertarido, Michael Chance is something of a surprise - he has become, rather late in the day, a rather good stage actor and this certainly helped him overcome a slightly lacklustre vocal performance, which unfortunately pointed up the limitations of his voice compared to his more lustrous countertenor colleagues Daniels and Scholl who have both triumphed in this role recently. He still has a beautiful, elegantly-handled instrument, but he seemed to lack some power and stamina - this is certainly noticeable by the time he reached his final big aria "Vivi Tiranno". A really pleasant surprise is the vocal quality of Paul Nilon, tenor, as Grimoaldo the hesitant baddy - here is a real Handelian singer with power, elegance and restraint. He can act too. But not as well as the second countertenor in this production, the evergreen Chris Robson, as Bertarido's faithful servant Unulfo. I would suggest that any young opera singer looking for inspiration in how to work on a stage and get the best out of what must be called a now less-than-perfect voice, should view his performance here - it's a triumph. The perennial put-upon "little man", despised by most, but dogged and even brave in defending what he knows to be right, Robson's Unulfo must be one of the most affecting Handel performances I've seen. I have to admit to a lump in the throat as he staggers bloodied to the floor after a beating and sings of his loyalty to his king and his conviction that these storms in life will pass, in the lovely aria "Fra tempeste". It's at this point too that we get another bonus: one of the best shot and lit scenes of the opera as poor Unulfo completes the aria's de capo section walking into a curtain of sulphurously-lit falling rain, a visual metaphor for, we hope, a cleansing of the evil that surrounds him.
Of the other main roles, Umberto Chiummo as the dastardly real villain Garibaldo is a bit rough vocally, not really reaching his lowest notes, and is also a bit of the "rolling eyes" type baddy - acting by numbers you might call it. Elias Maurides plays the silent boy's role of Rodelinda's son Flavio. As Eudige, the elegant Felicity Palmer is, frankly, a little too mature for the part although she is of course hugely experienced and could manipulate her slightly depleted vocal range to good effect as her character changed emotional course through the opera.
So, this Rodelinda is not a world beater, but certainly worth a look for some memorable scenes - but do try to watch it on as big a screen as possible in order to get the best from it.
2 DVD Set; Subtitles in English, German, Italian and Japanese; Reg Code 0 (all); RT: 3'23"
© Sue Loder 2005