Wadsworth, Stephen


RodelindaGeorge Frideric Handel - Rodelinda

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang | The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011

The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.

Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action of Rodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.

Rodelinda
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.

From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.

Rodelinda

Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.

Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.

IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Stephen Wadsworth, Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Paul Groves, Gordon Hawkins | The Met: Live in HD - February 26, 2011

It was through his French opera works that Christoph Willibald Gluck would bring to fruition the reforms to opera he had begun in Vienna in 1762 and 1767 with Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste (which themselves would later be revised in French versions), culminating in his 1779 masterwork Iphigénie en Tauride. Returning to the origins of where opera derived – an attempt to recreate ancient Greek drama with the accompaniment of music – Gluck’s intention was similarly to strip back anything that didn’t serve to primarily support and enhance the drama.

Gone then are the excessive arias with their da capo repetitions designed to show of the coloratura of the star singers, gone is the recitativo secco left to fill in the narrative, and gone is the inexpressive sound of the harpsichord of Baroque opera. In its place Gluck would use the orchestration, continuo singing, and significantly make stronger use of the chorus, to enhance and give psychological depth to the characterisation and the drama, to the extent that, famously in Ihpigénie en Tauride, characters can say one thing while the music reveals the contradicting meaning to what they are saying. The reforms of opera instigated by Gluck were hugely influential and very important, leading the way towards the more modern form of opera as we know it today.

It’s that sheer depth of human emotion and psychological drama that comes out of the Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Ihpigénie en Tauride for the Metropolitan Opera, their production to be broadcast live in HD. Less cerebral than Claus Guth’s 2001 Freudian interpretation of the Euripides drama for the Opernhaus Zurich, the Met orchestra is also rather fuller than William Christie’s period arrangements for that production, but both in their way get to the heart of the human tragedy of Greek proportions that are at the core of the opera. There’s not too much scene setting in this version of Iphigenia in Tauris, a silent dramatic prelude re-enacting the horror of Iphigenia’s execution at the hand of her father Agamemnon at Aulis, in an effort to appease Artemis on his way to fight the war in Troy, only to be spirited away at the last moment by the goddess Diana (the event recounted in an earlier Gluck opera, Iphigéne en Aulide). After 15 years in Tauris, a priestess now to King Thoas, the trauma remains so deep that she is unable to recognise her brother Orestes, who has arrived in shipwrecked in Tauris, and who is about to be sacrificed to the Gods by his sister, according to the custom of the land.

Iphigenie

Dramatically, Iphigénie en Tauride is a sequel to Iphigéne en Aulide then, but it has links also to Elektra (where Orestes has just taken revenge on his mother Clytemnestra for the murder of his father Agamemnon, and is equally as traumatised by the experience), and the brooding melancholy of Gluck’s score in some ways sets the tone that Strauss would match, even more discordantly, some time later in his opera Elektra. The same qualities of deep remorse mixed with guilt lie at the heart of both – the traumatic events that Ihpigenia and Orestes have endured have had a profound impact on their personalities (one indeed with pre-Freudian connotations, as in the initial encounter between brother and sister when Orestes, coming out of a nightmare, calls out “Mother” on seeing Iphigenia) – and, like Elektra, Iphigénie en Tauride is likewise stripped down to its pure emotional core, the singing is allowed to stand alone and express the heart of the drama more through the voice than through any narrative drive.

The split stage is effective, reducing the stage down into distinct areas where the psychological drama can be enclosed and heightened in suffocating prison cells and sacrificial tombs. It may have just been the sound mix to the cinemas or perhaps the less than perfect French diction of the singers, but the staging also seemed to affect the acoustics of the voice. Scarcely a word could be made out of Gordon Hawkins’ delivery as Thoas, but Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo’s singing also seemed to have a little too much reverb. Both however were in fine voice – and wonderful voices they are – despite both suffering from a cold. There were noticeable sniffles from Graham in Act 1 and 2, but whatever remedy she was taking kicked in after the interval, resulting in a commanding singing and dramatic performance in the final two acts. Domingo seemed to be holding back and conserving his energy, but by the same token he is not a grandstanding scene-stealing kind of performer and played within the confines of the role (as I’m sure Gluck would have approved), graciously allowing both Graham and Paul Groves to give full account of their voices and the roles they played.