Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Rodrigo [Illustration by Tomi Um]
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.

Handel’s Rodrigo by Operamission

A review by John Yohalem

Above: Rodrigo [Illustration by Tomi Um]

 

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):