Even by usual standards of patently implausible baroque opera plots, "Rodelinda" reaches new heights of Delphic abstruseness. William Hartston in the London Express described Handel's 19th opera as "everyone wanting to marry or kill everyone else".
Regardless of Hartston's hyperbole, confusion certainly abounds. A Penelope-esque wife erroneously thinks her husband is dead not once, but twice. The two principal protagonists mope around in a fiortura funk for most of the narrative. The imprisoned deposed-king mistakenly tries to kill his liberator. A betrothed couple separately renege. A cynical usurper is pardoned with "Clemenza di Tito-like" magnanimity. The names of many of the characters are unpronounceable and the happy ending beggars belief. That said, "Rodelinda" contains some of the most marvelous operatic music Handel ever wrote.
Regisseur Jean Bellorini's solution to the manifold dramaturgical conundrums was to transform a quasi-Greek tragedy into a variegated Legoland kindergarten.
In his program notes, Bellorini explains "We are in the mental universe of Flavio looking at the uncompromising world of adults, with all the fantasy and violence of a child's dream or nightmare". To remind the audience of this dubious dramaturgy (which had already been used by Claus Guth in Madrid) there were huge black and white projections of Flavio flashed frequently onto a rear scrim.
Alors, the kiddie-concept is all very well but the perspective of a child is inherently much more limited than the range of complex emotions manifest in Nicola Francesco Haym's poetic libretto drawn from Antonio Salvi and Pierre Corneille. As far as Handel was concerned, the mute moppet was of such minimal relevance he wrote neither melody nor text for the ubiquitous toddler. In fact, Handel had already given Flavio his own opera two years earlier.
The stage design was made up of constantly shifting, low ceiling doll's house rooms joined together like railway carriages. An assortment of hand-puppets as Lilliputian doubles of the dramatis personae dominated the extra-textual action. Reflecting the shifting line-dance of rooms, a toy train shunted back and forth for the first two acts but must have derailed before the third. There was frequent use of scary gauze facemasks which made the characters look particularly ghoulish for no particular reason.
In case the audience didn't know which parts of the opera were important, garish fluorescent tubes descended periodically to frame the relevant singers. There was so much extraneous action going on it was hard to know what was actually happening in the plot. The psycho-sexual and underlying political power play in "Rodelinda" were reduced to the triviality of the Tintookies or Thomas the Tank Engine.
Bellorini is a graduate of the Ecole Claude Mathieu specializing in comedy, but there were not many laughs in this staging other than some funny Chaplin-esque walks, hops, and pirouettes by Jakub Józef Orliński as Unulfo.
Fittingly Macha Makeïeff's eclectic costumes had an abundance of iridescent froufrou and frills which made the protagonists closer to commedia dell'arte clowns than Corneille's classic tragedy. The only consistently pleasing aspect of the production was the lighting by Luc Muscillo and there were some especially memorable imagines such as the vast blue/grey background to Bertarido's solitary scenes.
Directrice musicale Emmanuelle Haïm has worked on more than 60 works by Handel which gives her significantly more credibility than Monsieur Bellorini, whose previous operatic exploits number three. Leading the c.30 member Concert d'Astrée ensemble with verve and panache, maestro Haïm kept the tempi pacy and orchestral sonorities pungent. The only negative was a large number of cuts, especially in the music for Bertarido.
The usurper's dumped ex-fiance Eduige isn't exactly a complex character and American contralto Avery Amereau made a decent attempt to inject a Lady Macbeth malevolence into the role. There was fire in the recitatives with Garibaldo although diction was mushy. "Lo farò, dirò spietato" had smooth roulades with some Resnik-esque low A-natural chest notes on "cor". "De' miei scherni per far vendetta" had more punch with some solid D-naturals and feisty B-flats. A bravura cadenza brought the tirade to a powerful close. "Quanto più fiera tempesta freme" had puissance and rhythmic bite although the contrasting "Già lusinghiera, per mio conforto" section was closer to forte than the correct piano.
Bertarido's loyal friend Unulfo was given an almost buffo interpretation by rising-star countertenor Jakub Jósef Orliński. Although 27, the acclaimed Polish singer could pass for 17, thus fitting effortlessly into the kiddie-concept staging. "Sono i colpi della sorte" was a tour de force with Orliński's easily identifiable voice color excelling in the lengthy semiquaver roulades and chest notes. The fruity D naturals were particularly potent.
"Fra tempeste funeste a quest'alma" closed the first half with dazzling show-stopping coloratura pyrotechnics. The low chest notes on "bella" were vintage Horne and the aria rightly received the loudest applause of the evening.
Unulfo's later aria "Un zeffiro spirò che serenò quest'alma" with its almost dyspeptic syncopation and chuckling bassoon obbligato was hardly redolent of gentle zyphers, but Orliński not only excelled in the crisp rhythms and plumy mid-voice C naturals but was visually entertaining with some nifty dance steps testifying to his real-life expertise as a break-dancer.
Athough occasionally tending to slide upwards to the higher tessitura, Orliński has a formidable vocal technique and commendable commitment to the nuances of the text. The mid-range is wonderfully modulated and tonalties around D-natural really impressive. In all respects, a great performance.
In Corneille's drama "Pertharite, roi des Lombards", Grimoaldo was clearly the homme méchant, but Handel makes his henchman Garibaldo the ultimate cad and bounder. Andrea Mastroni had lots of fog-horny low notes but focus was fuzzy and characterization of the duplicitous duca mono-dimensional.
Revealing his true feelings for Eduige in "Di Cupido impiego i vanni" Mastroni's intonation left a lot to be desired and the roulades and cadenzas were cumbrous. The important recitative with Rodelinda in the graveyard scene was unconvincing. The cynical realpolitik views in "Tirannia gli diede il regno" were ruthlessly expressed but vocally less than optimal. For a native-born Italian, Mastroni's diction was far from exemplary and the dramatic recitative when Garibaldo is about to kill the sleeping Grimoaldo was disappointingly drab.
The role of Grimoaldo is dramaturgically ambiguous and English tenor Benjamin Hulett veered towards the power-grabber's more agreeable side. "Io già t'amai, ritrosa" was almost endearingly Tamino-like in its lyricism and the roulades on "sdegnasti" were elegantly executed.
Regrettably "Se per te giungo a godere" was cut, which meant that Grimoaldo doesn't guarantee Garibaldo his protection. "Che vedete, occhi miei!" was blandly offhand and "Tuo drudo è mio rivale" closer to Snidely Whiplash than de Torquemada.
The scene when Grimoaldo interrupts the tender reunion between Rodelinda and Bertarido was more of a Feydeau farce with the characters scampering through multiple doors and hiding behind the furniture. The remorseful "Fatto inferno è il mio petto" was convincingly articulated and the contrasting larghetto leading to "Pastorello d'un povero armento" movingly phrased. The lilting 12/8 aria itself was similarly seductive with some gentle word colouring on "contento". The da capo had tasteful trilling even if several upper register notes were not exactly pristine.
Bertarido has some of the most beautiful music in Handel's score and Tim Mead's honeyed countertenor timbre was ideal for the lyricism of the role. Although his first disguised appearance didn't look particularly Hungarian, there was greater verisimilitude musically.
The accompanied recitative "Pompe vane di morte!" was sensitively articulated and following "Dove sei, amato bene!" with extended fermata on "Dove" beautifully phrased with delicate vibrato-less ornamentation on "consolar" in the da capo. The stately "Io t'abbraccio e più che morte" duet with Rodelinda was one of the musical highpoints of the evening. The entwining melodic lines with macarto string accompaniment was Handelian vocal elegance at its apogee. "Chi di voi fu più infedele" was sung from inside an over-lit prison-bar box with little semblance to a "carcere oscurissima". Vocally this was another tour-de-force for the former King's College Cambridge choral scholar who relished the low tessitura with come splendid C-naturals.
Curiously "Con rauco mormorio" was a bit plodding and not exactly "luongo delizioso" as scored. "Scacciata dal suo nido" was cut thus depriving the audience of enjoying Haym's ornithological erudition. Similarly regrettable was that the rousing "Se fiera belva ha cinto" aria and preceding recitative with Unulfo were also deleted. By contrast, "Vivi tiranno! Io t'ho scampato" gave Mead the chance for an impressive display of bravura vocalism although his real strength is in the long legato lyric line rather than fizz and fireworks.
At the outset, the ostensibly widowed Rodelinda isn't having a very jolly time at all, and "Hò perdutoil caro sposo" has all the angst of Orfeo lamenting Euridice. Trinidad-born soprano Jeanine De Bique displayed a suitably doleful timbre and admirable breath control but the voice had more metal than melancholy. The following Abigaille-ish "L'empio rigor del fato" was marred by uneven semi-quaver scales and roulades and the tempo change to adagio on "se misera mi fè" was ignored.
"Ombre, piante, urne funeste!" continued the mournful mood but this time there were some deliciously light floaty top G-naturals with a Pamina-ish cantilena. There was more venom in "Morrai sì, l'empia tua testa" with an exciting cadenza before "trono". Similarly "Spietati, io vi giurai" showed that this Lombardian widow was far from merry, despite the chirpy oboe obbligato. When wrongly believing her husband to be dead for a second time, "Se'l mio duol non è si forte" had some poignant sustained E-flats assisted in no small measure by sensitive flûtes à bec. An interpolated top A-flat fermata in the da capo was impressive without losing musical integrity.
De Bique's diction throughout was never more than proximate with the recitatives being particularly unsatisfactory. Despite a melting smile, dramatically things were less than Bernhardt-esque and De Bique's squeal when Flavio is temporarily abducted by Garibaldo was more titter than trauma.
Haïm took the concluding "Dopo la notte oscura più lucido" chorus at a rollicking Rossinian pace which made the heavy rallentando on "il sol quaggiù" even more effective. All is forgiven and like "tutti a festeggiar!" Bertarido orders that "great rejoicings reach to the last limits of our kingdom".
Apart from the executed Garibaldo, everyone else enthusiastically joins the jubilation. Finally, the IMAX projections of Flavio could be dispensed with but there was still a lingering feeling that this munchkin-focused doll's house mis-en-scène was more kiddie jumping castle than angst-filled Ibsen.
Back to Feydeau or Marcel Marceau for Monsieur Bellorini.
Source: Jonathan Sutherland (operawire.com)
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Rodelinda, HWV 19 (1725)
Opera in three acts
Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym (1678-1729) and Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)
Rodelinda..........Jeanine De Bique, soprano
Bertarido..........Tim Mead, countertenor
Grimoaldo..........Benjamin Hulett, tenor
Eduige..........Avery Amereau, contralto
Unolfo..........Jakub Józef Orliński, countertenor
Garibaldo..........Andrea Mastroni, bass
Flavio (the child)..........Aminata Diouaré
Le Concert d'Astrée
Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm
Stage Director: Jean Bellorini
Stage Designer: Jean Bellorini, Véronique Chazal
Lighting: Jean Bellorini, Luc Muscillo
Costume Designer: Macha Makeïeff
Make-up and hairstyling: Cécile Kretschmar
Direction by Anthony Toulotte
Produced by Olivier Simonnet
Opéra de Lille, October 2018
The opera opens with Rodelinda's lament for Bertarido, the husband she believes to be dead. "Ho perduto il caro sposo", she sings, voicing the tragedy that is the central fact of her life as she sits alone and weeping in the palace. Though Rodelinda will pass through grief, misery and fury, her fidelity to Bertarido's memory is inflexible and defines her every action until their joyous reunion.
She is disturbed by the arrival of Grimoaldo, the usurper of her husband's throne, who declares both his love and his desire to marry her. Garibaldo, his henchman, arrives, and suggests that his patron free himself of the woman he once promised to marry, Eduige, who complicates the plot by also being Bertarido's sister. But Garibaldo – falsely, since he is a villain – protests his love to Eduige, believing she will help him attain the throne, to which she has a claim so long as Rodelinda's son, Flavio, is still a minor.
A disguised Bertarido appears at his own tomb and reads the inscription. He reflects upon the hollow splendour of man's ambitions in a long accompanied recitative, "Pompe vane". Longing for Rodelinda, he sings the meltingly beautiful aria "Dove sei", declaring that only in her presence can he find consolation for his sorrow.
Unulfo appears but is unable to comfort his friend, the devastated Bertarido. They hide when they hear Rodelinda approach the tomb and give voice to her misery in the aria "Ombre, piante", then are forced to listen to Garibaldo threaten her: either she marries Grimoaldo or Flavio will die. She agrees to the union but vows that her first request as queen will be the head of Garibaldo, the Iago-like counsellor of Grimoaldo. Her sober mournfulness now turns to something more passionate: "Morrai, sì" is a surprisingly sprightly hymn to future vengeance.
But it is not enough to persuade Bertarido of her fidelity when, from a hidden place, he hears her agree to marry his enemy Grimoaldo. Immediately certain of her infidelity, he launches into the bitter "Confusa si miri". He vows to appear to her when she is married.
The importunate Garibaldo is surprised at Eduige's consent to marry him since she has lost Grimoaldo. Meanwhile Rodelinda, tormented past bearing by his overtures, turns on Grimoaldo with a test of his own monstrosity and declares that she will marry him only if he will murder her son in front of her eyes (thus proving his absolute villainy). Unulfo urges him to refuse; Garibaldo urges him to accept. The distressed Grimoaldo hastens from the scene, leaving Garibaldo to plot his master's downfall.
Bertarido stands in "a pleasant landscape" and gives himself over to the pathetic fallacy: nature's sounds and sights mirror his own anguish. Eduige is reunited with her brother, astonished to find Bertarido alive and elated to hear that his sole aim is to save his wife and son (and not to reclaim the kingdom). Unulfo appears and assures Bertarido that his wife is in fact faithful to him, and both his heart and his aria turn joyful in "Scacciata dal suo nido".
Unulfo then goes to Rodelinda and assures her that her husband still lives and soon will return to her: "Ritorna, o caro" gives voice to her rhapsodic joy and longing. Bertarido seeks her out in the palace and kneels to beg her forgiveness for having doubted her constancy. They are no sooner united than discovered, as Grimoaldo arrives.
To save Rodelinda's reputation, Bertarido reveals that he is her husband, but, in order to protect him, she denies this. Grimoaldo, uninterested in the man's identity, condemns him to prison and certain death. The last the loving couple believe they will know of one another are the final moments of "Io t'abbraccio".
Eduige gives Unulfo a key to rescue the imprisoned Bertarido while Garibaldo, bad to the very end, urges Grimoaldo to kill him. In a dungeon, Bertarido reflects upon his fate in "Chi di voi", the music as restless as his spirit. His lament is interrupted by both a sword dropped down to him by Eduige and the arrival of Unulfo with the key: mistaking his friend for the executioner, Bertarido stabs and wounds him. No sooner has he realized his mistake than distant voices force them to flee. They leave behind a bloody cloak, which the arriving Rodelinda takes to be that of her husband. Certain that he is dead, she lapses into re-doubled grief in "Se'l mio duol", begging God to strike a dagger through her heart.
Grimoaldo takes an honest look at the beast he has become, longs for a shepherd's simple life and seeks escape in sleep. Garibaldo, discovering him, tries to kill him but is prevented by Bertarido: too noble to allow his enemy Grimoaldo to fall victim to treachery, Bertarido drives Garibaldo off and kills him.
The waking Grimoaldo is confronted by his enemy's declaration (in one of Handel's greatest stand-and-deliver arias, "Vivi, tiranno"), witnessed by the entering Rodelinda, that Bertarido has spared him and saved his life. Proof of such clemency moves Grimoaldo to repentance: he gives Bertarido his wife, his son and his throne, and the royal lovers are reunited to general rejoicing.
Source: Donna Leon (Deutsche Grammophon)
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