International Handel Festival Göttingen 2021 Review: Rodelinda

Anna Dennis & Christopher Lowrey Lead An Intriguing and Successful Presentation

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Alciro Theodore da Silva)

The relationship of art to society is a complex and ever-changing one. At times it is used to support the dominant values of the elite as was the case with the 17th and 18th century baroque, whilst during other periods, it sets itself up in opposition to society, underpinned by varying degrees of revolutionary intent. Certainly, new art almost inevitably finds itself in conflict with the values of the old, and will often use mockery and ridicule to challenge the authority of the former.

In more discordant times, this may lead to direct action in the form of removing statues, forms of censorship and violence. As such art itself can become a battleground, as the elites try to suppress, corrupt, or even embrace the new art in order to control, divert or blunt its effects and compromise its values, values in which they will be in direct conflict with, and which often will be founded upon utopian visions of the future, and thus requiring the complete annihilation of current societal institutions.

Rodelinda’s Story Entwined With Revolutionary Art 

Dorian Dreher’s production of “Rodelinda,” for this year’s International Handel Festival in Göttingen, interweaves Rodelinda’s personal story of harassment and abuse which she receives from the usurper to the throne Grimoaldo with the artistic revolution which took place in the early part of the 20th century, when artist reacted with disgust to the values which had dragged the world into war. One of his first acts as the new king is to remove the paintings from Rodelinda’s apartments, which are then defaced, and replaced with more revolutionary paintings.

For the first Act and a half, there appeared to be little to distract from Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto, with the focus squarely on Grimoaldo’s pursuit of Rodelinda and the reappearance of her husband, Bertarido, who is set on thwarting his rival, with only occasional references made to the accompanying artistic revolution. The sets designed by Hsuan Huang were unimaginative and dull, consisting of little more than the walls of a drawing-room, with no attempt to shift the locations as described in the libretto. But then, boom! Everything changes. A large model of what appears to be Picasso’s Minotaur comes crashing through the walls into the room. The effect was stunning. It is then used by Grimoaldo, who now consumed by his own power, sits on top of it, from where he directs the drama in which Rodelinda and Bertarido are subject to his whims.

Towards the end of the final Act, the edifice of society has been torn down, the set has gone. All that is left is a backcloth. Garibaldo, always on the look out for creating trouble has been killed by Bertarido. Grimoaldo and Bertarido have been reconciled, and harmony restored. Utopia can now be built. The cast changes into evening dress to toast their success. But as the final bars play out, Flavio, Rodelinda’s son, who seems to enjoy playing with his toy guns, turns to face the back of the stage. The backcloth has lifted to reveal a large pile of books upon which sits Garibaldo, who is in fact the Devil, beckoning the child to him. He has already recognized the key to Utopia’s destruction, for it lies in the soul of Man, not within the structure of society.

It was an excellent presentation, one in which the dramatic pace was altered to good effect midway through the opera, and captured Rodelinda’s very personal suffering. Moreover, Dreher’s reading was thought-provoking on many levels, successfully encouraging one to ponder the relationship between art, values, and society, its relationship to current events, particularly in the USA and other Western countries, as well as on the impossibility of remolding the soul of Man.

Huang’s sets, which initially appeared dismally boring were, in fact, neatly crafted to control the dramatic impact, and as such worked exceptionally well. She was also responsible for costume designs, which were cleverly created to define the characters and their social and intellectual positions, most obviously in the case of Garibaldo who was dressed in clothing ranging over a number of centuries, in a clue to his real identity. Markus Piccio’s lighting designs brought the necessary contrast and atmospheric effects to the staging, and his flooding of the stage in blue light during moments of reflective fantasy was notably successful.

An Elegant Rodelinda

The role of Rodelinda provides a soprano with numerous opportunities to display her expressive abilities, and Anna Dennis, cast in the role, took full advantage in a presentation that captured both the dignified and emotional nature of her character, without drifting into overstatement. In Act one she laments the loss of her husband in the aria “Ombre, piante, urne, funeste,” in which, beyond all else, the sheer beauty of her voice stood out, as she spun out long, delicately crafted lines, full of subtle inflections which perfectly captured her pain and loss. However, she was equally comfortable giving voice to more violent and complex passions, exemplified brilliantly in her Act two aria “Spietati, io vi giurai,” in which she challenges Grimoaldo to kill her son. Using her formidable vocal agility and dramatic awareness, she produced an expressive and explosive reading in which she managed to successfully combine her anger and contempt for Grimoaldo with her anxiety for her son’s safety. In the aria “Morrai, sì; l’empia tua testa,” Rodelinda ponders having Garibaldo executed, which allowed Dennis to show off her secure upper register, coloratura, and lively phrasing. She was also attentive to the quality of her recitatives which were always expressively on point.

Lowery’s Complete Identification With Bertarido

Countertenor Christopher Lowrey produced an excellent performance as Bertarido, in which his identification with the role was complete. Every line, every word was given its full emotional weight, to the extent that at times his suffering appeared to be overwhelming him. In scenes seven and eight of Act one, he watches on as his wife grieves over his death, and who then, under duress, agrees to marry Grimoaldo. Lowrey interjects with just a few short recitatives, but they were sung with such pain and anguish that they perfectly defined the depth of Bertarido’s feelings.

Yet, his singing was so much more than giving voice to his emotions, for it was a performance founded on solid technique and vocal beauty. From his first aria “Dove sei, amato bene?” he charmed the audience with his vocal clarity, control, and alluring timbre, as he crafted delicate lines, full of subtle embellishments and short light trills. He was also comfortable in arias requiring more forceful presentations such as “Vivi tiranno! Io t’ho scampato” which allowed him to display his vocal agility in a series of fine coloratura passages.

The duet “Io t’abbraccio, e più che morte” for Rodelinda and Bertarido which brought Act two, a conclusion was one of the musical delights of the evening. Although Lowrey and Dennis had two very different approaches, one fully immersed in the emotions, the other preferring understatement, their voices successfully combined and produced a sensitive and beautiful rendition, supported by the graceful, light accompaniment of the orchestra.

A Strong Supporting Cast

The tenor Thomas Cooley produced a many-sided presentation of Grimoaldo, ranging from a despotic usurper who demands Rodelinda marry him, to a dupe manipulated by Garibaldo, to a man verging on madness as he rides around on the minotaur, smiling and gesticulating maniacally, and eventually to a man who sees the error of his ways. His voice possesses a warm inviting tone, which he used expressively, although at times he opted for a more distant, refined approach, which emphasized the gracefulness and elegance of Handel’s writing. His most successful aria was possibly “Pastorello d’un povero armento” in which Grimoaldo bemoans the pressures of ruling a kingdom, for which he produced an emotionally charged performance.

Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts produced a strong portrayal as Garibaldo, a.k.a. the Devil, successfully casting an evil presence over events with his malevolent sneer, casual confident swagger, and deliberate violent volatility. His strong physical portrayal extended to his vocal presentation in which his excellent phrasing was enveloped with menace and threat. His opening aria “Di Cupido impiego i vanni” proudly boasting lines such as “I use love to conceal deceit” neatly summed up Garibaldo’s character, which along with Van Mellaerts animated rendition could leave no one in the audience in doubt as to his role. Recitatives were cleverly accented which added to his aura of intimidation and malevolence.

Mezzo-soprano Franziska Gottwald produced an energetic performance in the role of Eduige, successfully portraying her as emotionally impulsive, raging, and loving in equal measure. She possesses a secure, colorful voice with a pleasing timbre, which she successfully employed to vent her feelings. Her revenge aria “De’miei scherni” was sufficiently angry,  while the aria “Quanto più fiera” displayed a more balanced and reflective approach.

The countertenor Owen Willetts was always going to find himself overshadowed in the role of Unulfo, but nevertheless imposed himself on the role and left a strong impression. It was not exactly clear, however, as to the exact nature of the character which appeared to waver between loyalty to Bertarido – a collaboration with Grimoaldo, and a desire to assert his own worth. He possesses a bright voice, which is supported by a subtle darker underside, which gave it an interesting and pleasing quality. His singing was refined and elegant, and his vocal agility allowed him to despatch his arias with success, and his attention to recitatives ensured they were fully developed.

Cumming’s Excellent Musical Direction

Conductor Laurence Cummings, in his final year as the festival’s artistic director, elicited a fine performance from the FestspielOrchester Göttingen. Their sound was sharp, clear and precise, yet never dry, and was always responsive to the work’s dramatic shifts, in what was an energetic and lively reading, full of rhythmic vitality. However, what really stood out was the elegance and balance, which successfully highlighted the beauty of Handel’s score.

Overall, this was a first-class production. It was an imaginatively staged and musically sensitive presentation that convinced on every level and received prolonged applause from the audience.

Dreher’s reading was complex and intriguing, and ultimately a very successful one, while the cast all produced fine performances, albeit in their own individual manner as there appeared to exist no overarching aesthetic: some singers preferred to focus emotional expressivity, most notably Lowrey, while others subsumed the emotions within a more elegant presentation. It did not, however, detract from the enjoyment.

The production served as a successful and fitting end to Cummings’ tenure as artistic director.


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