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Jennifer Aylmer
17 Feb 2008

Rodelinda at Portland

Valentine’s Day may not quite be in the same major holiday league with the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, but you wouldn’t have known it from the fireworks emanating from the stage of Portland Opera, in the form of some dazzling Valentine’s night vocalizing in quite a fine production of Handel’s “Rodelinda.”

G. F. Handel: Rodelinda
Portland Opera

Above: Jennifer Aylmer


In the title role, the radiant Jennifer Aylmer showed off quite a full arsenal of technical perfection. Throughout the night Ms. Aylmer not only poured out plangent legato phrases, trip-hammer fioritura, and unfailingly lovely tone at all volumes and in all registers, but also displayed a solid technique, handsome stage presence, and an admirable command of this difficult genre. If her trills were sometimes approximated it was small matter. Hers is a major musical presence on the current scene and happily for us all, these days she is singing all over the map.

That said, for all her strengths, at the top of the show I thought she lacked the weight of voice, or perhaps the seriousness of dramatic purpose required. “Rodelinda” begins in tragedy mode, which accelerates rapidly to righteous anger. I certainly thought the voice a wonderful instrument from the git-go, but perhaps a half-size too small. Her first splashy coloratura harangue, while clean and musical, seemed more “petulant soubrette” than “royalty wronged.”

Indeed throughout Act One, I was thinking rather what a memorable “Susanna” she would be, and then, lo, from Act Two onward, as her performance deepened I settled into a broader appreciation of her talents for the work at hand. Maybe she was pacing herself? Or maybe I just got over myself! In any case, while she is not “quite” just yet Beverly or Renee or Cecilia in this repertoire, this is a major talent with a great future. Watch for her.

Arguably, the “discovery” of this production was countertenor Gerald Thompson as “Unulfo.” We have come a long way since pleasant rarities like Russell Oberlin, let me tell you! Mr. Thompson has an uncommonly impressive instrument for this Fach, full-bodied, expressive, responsive, capable of every demand that Handel asks of it. Our singer absolutely and thrillingly nailed every sixteenth note of the (extremely) rapid passage work with fiery precision. Moreover, he displayed real heart in his slower parlando passages. So accomplished was he, that I found myself wishing that he were the one singing the incomparably lovely “Dove Sei,” one of leading man “Bertarido’s” big set pieces. (He has sung the role elsewhere.)

Not that Jennifer Hines didn’t bring many fine qualities to her impersonation of our hero. She is a handsome woman with good musical instincts and a well-schooled mezzo. While her dark, almost vibrato-less sound should have been well-suited to this male character, her production did not seem grounded in the speaking voice, at times sounding hollow instead of troubled, backward-placed instead of forthcoming. She had all the notes for her final showpiece aria, but scarce brilliance of tone. Perhaps I have become too accustomed to the luxurious bravura of Horne or Verrett or Larmore in such trouser roles, but Ms. Hines seemed mis-cast, not in agility or intelligence or intentions, but in vocal star presence.

The “Eduige” of Emma Curtis had plenty of spunk, and she quite successfully married her rock solid low register to a rather rich middle and a secure, if slightly thinner top. She managed some awesome arpeggiated licks with thundering baritonal low notes, but her generous vibrato caused a little grief in slower passages in the lower middle voice, when the “point” of the pitch got muddied a bit here and there.

For the first two acts, it was difficult to make out the skill set of tenor Robert Breault’s “Grimoaldo.” His florid singing seemed accurate enough, if somewhat thin and scaled back, and I had the feeling he wanted to lag behind the beat. Then, suddenly, ringing climactic high notes would appear that rattled the chandeliers. Hmmmmmm. Looking at his credits, this is a guy who sings “Cavaradossi” and “Don Jose” and here he was, frogging around in melismatic Handel, for God’s sake. Then in Act Three, Mr. Breault was totally vindicated with a memorable and moving reading of his big scena of doubt and redemption. Amazingly fine.

In the mute role of “Flavio,” young lad Jamesmichael (sic) Sherman-Lewis (don’t you love that name?) was adorably effective without upstaging. Bass Verlian Ruminski was so terrific as “Garibaldo” that I dearly wished the role were not so small. He tore up the stage with his solidly projected arias and theatrical conviction.

And “theatrical conviction” is a point of discussion in considering Helena Binder’s staging. It is interesting that in other times and places, producers have occasionally sought (with considerable effort and imagination) to make viable stage pieces out of oratorios. But here it seemed that we were looking at a highly stage worthy opera, which was reduced on more than one occasion to an oratorio.

Let me first say that Ms. Binder’s management of the logistics of exits and entrances, integration of set changes, and creation of lovely tableaux was skillfully done. And she is mistress of focusing the attention in all the right places, striving to serve the story well. Believe you me, these are no small skills, and we could use more directors/producers with this mind set.

However, to my taste there were too many instances of “stand-and-sing” or busy movement that did not illuminate the relationships, nor develop the character. You know, those interludes of stage “busy-ness.” You’ve seen it: “Now I will walk right; nope, nope; I will stop as if remembering I really wanted to go left; maybe; maaaaybe; nope, left’s not it; I’ll just stop; and. . .oops-it’s-time-to-sing-again.”

Too, a pattern emerged of having the soloists tromp off stage at the end of almost each and every aria, sometimes way too soon prompting applause over the postludes, and leaving silence in the ensuing set changes which could have been better covered by the audience reaction to the aria. I appreciate the artistic decisions that were made and the consistency of their execution, all the while I would yet urge Madame Director to further develop the character relationships, delve into more specificity, and take fuller advantage of the ripe dramatic possibilities.

John Copley’s pleasing settings were an effective modern interpretation of Baroque theatrical conventions, like the “in-one” scene changes. The playing space was made more intimate by a succession of receding square proscenium-like frames which threw the action forward to the primary playing space on a red lacquer square front and center stage.

Within this simple and elegant black and white unit, minimal furniture and key set pieces (like “Bertarido’s” memorial) were smoothly placed and removed by costumed servants. The colorless silhouettes of scenery flown in and out behind the upstage frame suggested trees, prison, gravestones, etc. like stylized and unadorned paper cut-outs. The shallow apron area had the advantage of bringing the singers forward more often than not, but had the disadvantage of somewhat restricting blocking to more linear moves.

The beautiful lighting design by Thomas J. Munn achieved lovely effects, especially with back lighting and isolated areas. The uncredited lavish costumes (Mr. Copley?) appeared to have been updated to Handel’s time, and well, why not? They enhanced the character, and looked gorgeous to boot.

Musical matters were in secure hands with conductor George Manahan. While modern instruments were used, there was the usual inclusion of the (winningly played) theorbo and baroque guitar. There are trade offs in this choice. While the ensemble was immeasurably better tuned that some “early music” bands I have heard (ooh, was that my out-loud voice?) it also lacked the special color that great “original instrument” players can elicit. Playing with minimal vibrato and well-considered style, purists be damned, the Portland pit contributed some beautiful, idiomatic support.

Ever felt like a jaded opera fan who has maybe “seen it all”? I sure did as I watched lines of patrons parade to the orchestra pit at both intermissions to see just what this “theorbo thing” was all about. Many had never seen one before, and it was a total delight to be party to their discovery. Too, it should be remarked that there were any number of young people in attendance. The Goth Valentine’s couple in the row just behind me seemed to be getting off on “Rodelinda” with an uncalculated enthusiasm often lacking at such temples as Glyndebourne or Glimmerglass. Other companies with a maturing customer base might do well to study what Portland is doing right in audience development.

If I heard more “woo-woo-woo’s” than “bravi” at the curtain call, the net result was the same. The Portland public seems to know and appreciate the fact that they have a top notch producing organization, whose high standards were always in evidence with this enjoyable “Rodelinda.”

James Sohre

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