HANDEL: Rodelinda
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HANDEL: Rodelinda

spacer De Niese, Ernman; Mehta, Rexroth, Streit, Wolff; Concentus Musicus Wien, 
N. Harnoncourt. Production: 
P. Harnoncourt. Belvedere 10144 
(2 discs), subtitled, 189 mins.



Reading the long interview with stage director Philipp Harnoncourt in this DVD’s booklet won’t do much, unfortunately, to illuminate his over-intellectualized take on Handel’s Rodelinda for 2011 performances at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. His complicated and confusing staging is constantly at odds with the music. And, without much help with their characterizations, his cast members fumble hopelessly with unworkable cinema-style action. 

Handel’s 1725 London hit was the first of the composer’s operas to be revived in 1920, in a heavily cut and drastically altered form, for the inaugural Göttingen Handel Festival. The straightforward plot (a domestic drama in political guise), sympathetically drawn characters and sturdy music attracted later revivalists as well, with historic recordings by Joan Sutherland, Janet Baker, Maureen Forrester and Helen Watts. Stephen Wadsworth’s visually stunning production provided Met debuts for countertenors David Walker, Andreas Scholl, Christophe Dumaux, Iestyn Davies and Anthony Roth Costanzo in the castrato roles of the hero Bertarido and his confidant Unulfo.

Philipp Harnoncourt’s violent and sexually charged imagery emphasizes power and manipulation, with henchmen, sex workers, bodyguards, children and staff hanging around what appears to be an apartment complex or the compound of a politico’s extended family. Part maze and part cage, Herbert Murauer’s revolving set uses open terraces, stairways and courtyards to mirror the plot’s complicated web of family, sex, politics and gender issues. The attractive cast is buff enough to suggest there might be a state-of-the-art fitness center as well, and one gets many opportunities to ogle ladies in their undergarments. 

Staging bits that might work in the theater fail completely when joined to Baroque arias, with their endless repetitions of text. During Eduige’s first aria, as she rejects the villain Garibaldo’s offer of political allegiance, mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman rips apart a bed the maid has just tidied, sniffs the crotch of a pair of someone’s pajamas and makes a face, plays with a mop, lets her hair down, has a cocktail, engages in rough sexual foreplay with Garibaldo, then departs, strips to her underwear on the balcony and returns to have sex with him during what is supposed to be his soliloquy. It’s just busy and tiresome, providing neither clarity for the audience nor support for the singers’ interpretations.

Musically, matters are no better. Listening to his lead-footed style, it’s hard to believe Nikolaus Harnoncourt (the director’s father) was an early-music pioneer in the 1980s. Sonorities that seemed luxurious in the overture soon register as plodding and overblown, with loud and thick bass-lines dragging down already sluggish tempos. Old-fashioned cadenzas delay the end of every aria, while poorly paced recitatives and long waits between movements add to the musical lethargy.

Ernman’s plummy voice can’t cope with the coloratura, and her low notes in a later aria provoke laughter from the audience. Danielle de Niese brings Broadway sex appeal to the title role, but the soprano sounds tremulous, and she fails to suggest the character’s nobility or sophistication. As the villain Garibaldo, bass Konstantin Wolff sings with even, ringing tone, but both he and countertenor Matthias Rexroth, as Ubaldo, have to work too hard to bring shape to their arias. In the role of Grimoaldo, tenor Kurt Streit sounds consistently heroic, nailing the coloratura of “Tuo drudo è mio rivale” but suffering through Harnoncourt’s thudding and unnuanced reading of the aria “Tra sospetti,” the evening’s musical low point. 

Best is countertenor Bejun Mehta, who steals the show with his musical command and sensitive phrasing, in spite of losing two arias (“Scacciata dal suo nido” and “Se fiera belva”). Bertarido is a tiresome antihero, having abandoned his family to go into hiding and failing to see that his wife is cozying up to the enemy only because he’s threatened to kill her young son. Bertarido is more annoying than Ot(h)ello, jumping to conclusions about his wife’s fidelity. Yet in the showpieces — the meditative scena “Pompe vane di morte!,” “Dove sei, amato bene” and the virtuoso “Vivi, tiranno!” — Mehta exudes musical personality and dramatic focus. Somehow he persuaded Harnoncourt fils to keep the stage business simple while inspiring Harnoncourt père to sensitive collaboration. spacer 


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