Oper Frankfurt 2018-19 Review: Rodelinda

Above Average Singing But Directional Deviations Were Guth For Nothing

By Jonathan Sutherland
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Murderous political machinations and pandemic debauchery in the Kingdom of Lombardy in the 7th century were as rampant as any episode of “Game of Thrones” over a millennium later. A neophyte watching the latest series of the Westeros saga without any prior knowledge of its protagonists would find it similarly challenging to work out who is trying to marry or kill whom in “Rodelinda, Regina de’Longobardi.”

Why Handel would want to set such a Daedalean drama to music is anyone’s guess. Marital fidelity was hardly a popular pastime in early 18th century England where the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” was vastly more apropos than “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Librettist Nicola Francesco Haym had already provided Handel with five relatively straightforward historical texts including  “Giulio Cesare”, but the plot of “Rodelinda” almost defies description. Even a highly accomplished author and baroque music specialist such as Donna Leon missed a couple of incidents in her précis for “Handel & Hendrix in London.”

Impossible to Comprehend

Instilling a degree of clarity in a difficult story-line is a reasonable request of any director but perversely Claus Guth created so many layers of visual obfuscation it was almost impossible to comprehend the already convoluted plot. “Dopo la notte oscura” indeed. Christian Schmidt’s eclectic costumes careered from elegant Edwardian to 2019 Emilia Wickstead. Top-hatted Halloween scarecrows straight out of Mexico’s Día de Muertos added to the sartorial pot-pourri. There were decadent dinner parties, breakfast shenanigans, cocktail parties, ball-gowns and Halloween voodoo – in fact everything but an accurate representation of 7th century Regnum Langobardorum or Corneille’s original gloomy drama.

Guth’s most egregious dramaturgical aberration was to elevate the silent role of Flavio to that of personaggio numero uno. Similar to Jean Bellorini’s preoccupation with the bothersome brat for Opéra Lille, Guth’s explanation was that the opera is actuated through the bi-focalled eyes of the hypersensitive, possibly ADD 12-year-old sprog.  Not only does Flavio appear in almost every scene, the gifted mime artist with a fabulous name almost longer than his height (Fabián Augusto Gómez Bohóquez) totally dominates and actually distracts from the dramaturgy. Not even Schmidt’s carousel stage-set could divert attention from the antics of the scene-stealing munchkin. Wearing pajamas or schoolboy shorts, the diminutive Colombian actor d’un certain âge was constantly climbing onto or under tables, creeping around corners, sketching nightmare images and fighting imaginary demons as if a Hobbity Dappertutto.

In Act two Rodelinda demands that Grimoaldo kill Flavio in her presence. Admittedly this could be a tad unnerving for any moderately sensitive son. However Flavio is already obsessed with being murdered from the outset, including death by very un-7th century anthrax. He is constantly pursued by the scarecrow figures who are trying to think up new ways to dispose of the troublesome tot. Handel had already given Flavio his own opera two years earlier and if he had wished to write a “Flavio Triumphans” sequel, he would surely have done so.

Schmidt claims the architectural inspiration for his revolving duplex stage-set was Georgian but apart from a few square windowpanes, the surfeit of white balustrades had nothing to do with Henry Holland or John Nash at all. With multiple steps leading to bare nooks and crannies, the overall impression was more like a perspective-puzzling MC Escher lithograph. There were also no air-conditioning ducts in the Georgian era. Rodelinda’s furniture had slightly more éclat but was much closer to modern Mark Goetz or Philippe Stark than Chippendale or Hepplewhite. As if Flavio’s distracting capers were not enough, there were multiple projections of his angst-ridden artwork which made matters even more abstruse. On some occasions, the computer generated images were so huge the house itself was obscured, which was perhaps not such a bad thing.

Greater Clarity

Mercifully there was much greater clarity in the pit however Andrea Marcon is an expert in early Venetian music but Vivaldi is not exactly Handel’s fratello gemello. The Frankfurter Museumsorchester played with diligence and accuracy and but with a distinctly Germanic klang. Twenty string players should have made a much bigger sound and the continuo of theorbo, cembali, baroque guitar and cello lacked an intuitive sense of Handelian rubati.

On the plus side, apart from some minor pruning in one or two recitatives and Bertarido’s “Se fiera belva ha cinto,” Marcon made very few cuts. There was pep in the presto fugal section to the overture but violas in the minuetto section were not particularly graceful. Delphine Roche’s dulcet traverse flute made a valuable contribution to “Ombre, piante, urne funeste” and strings had real bite in “Morrai sì, l’empia tua testa”, “Sono i colpi della sorte” and “Tuo drudo è mio rivale.”  Curiously the solo violin obbligato to “Confusa si miri” was uncomfortably sharp.

The singing was more than satisfactory but with some significant reservations. Looking like the Duchess of Cambridge in Alexander McQueen haute couture, Katharina Magiera was an outstanding Eduige despite the unconvincing stage laughs and guffaws. There was a deep chocolatey coloring in the recitatives matched by consistently immaculate diction. The zippy “De’ miei scherni per far vendetta” aria had plenty of bravura, some riveting low tones, solid D-naturals and feisty B-flats. “Quanto più fiera tempesta freme” was a real tour-de-force with balanced articulation and luscious chest notes. It was disappointing that the contrasting “Già lusinghiera, per mio conforto” section was cut.

In a natty Chaplin-eqsue bus-boy uniform and sporting an unlikely pencil- thin mustache, young Polish counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński’s Unulfo was more of a Jeeves-like butler in the court of King Grimoaldo than aristocratic consigliere as stated in the libretto. Possibly due to the dry acoustics of the Frankfurter Oper, vocally things were not quite as successful as his interpretation of the same role in Lille last year. “Sono i colpi della sorte” had the usual dazzling semiquaver roulades and a great cadenza at the adagio but with less effervescence. There were intonation problems during the Act two recitative with Grimaldo with all three “vorrai’s” being under-pitch.

Unulfo’s show-stopping “Fra tempeste funeste” closed the first half with some impressive coloratura pyrotechnics, however Orliński’s customary exuberance was rather restrained. That said, the six bar melissmatic semiquavers on “stellar” showed extraordinary breath control and a stupendous double octave cadenza finishing on hefty low-B on “bella” was much more like the affable young Pole’s usual form. Orliński excelled in the crisp piquant rhythms in “Un zeffiro spirò” with its jerky syncopation and chirpy blockflöte and bassoon obbligati.  Mid-voice C-naturals were round and plummy and A-naturals had a marvelous ping. Perhaps not a pinnacle Orliński performance, but there is definitely no better Unulfo today.

More Imposing & Versatile

Wearing a Wotan eye-patch, black cape and carrying a rune-less Yggdrasil, Božidar Smiljanić’s Garibaldo seemed more like on a venture to Valhalla than coveting the crown of Lombardy. Although Smiljanić’s stage presence was imposing, vocal expertise was less impressive. The voice is strong in the upper register but the lower tessitura frequently lost projection.  Italian diction was closer to Šabac than Siena. Revealing his duplicitous feelings for Eduige in “Di Cupido impiego i vanni” Smiljanić’s displayed a strong top with firm E-flats and top F-naturals but the important recitative with Rodelinda in the graveyard scene lacked focus. The cynical realpolitik views in “Tirannia gli diede il regno” were snarled with Machiavellian malevolence but more hooty than honeyed. Although the top E and F-naturals were again solid, phrasing tended to be woolly and articulation barely proximate.

The role of the ostensibly odious usurper Grimoaldo is psychologically ambiguous and Martin Mitterrutzner was vocally adept and dramatically persuasive.  “Io già t’amai, ritrosa” had plenty of punch although several rising scale passages were behind tempo. There was a pleasing extemporized fermata on “Or ch’io son Re” which made dramatic sense. “Se per te giungo a godere” was sensibly restored and Mitterrutzner made much of the syncopated rhythms even if the triplet roulades were slightly sluggish. The da capo was omitted. “Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena” was sung with discreet embellishments and an impressive A-natural fermata on “la catena” but lacked the bright, forward-placed articulation which Raffaele Pe for example brings to the aria. “Tuo drudo è mio rivale” had plenty of wrath but the rapid roulades were not always pristine and the lower tessitura needed more octane. “Tra sospetti, affetti” was potent although the tempo change to adagio on “sento il seno” was ignored. The lilting “Pastorello d’un povero armento” was somnolently seductive with some subtle dotted rhythm phrasing on “l’ombra d’un faggio”.

German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl has had a long and distinguished career but the voice is no longer in its first bloom. Arguably Bertarido has the most beautiful music in Handel’s score and apart from some lustrous mid-range notes, Scholl was in all respects inferior to Tim Mead’s interpretation in Lille last year. “Pompe vane di morte!” was cleanly articulated, but the first word in “Dove sei, amato bene!” had serious intonation oscillations. Breath control however was impeccable and phrasing stylish. Bertarido’s premature condemnation of his wife in “Confusa si miri” was fine in the mid-range but the lower tessitura around C-sharp lacked projection and the chest note cadenza on “e vivo m’uccide” disappeared into the cellars of the Palazzo Ducale. “Scacciata dal suo nido” was happily restored and Scholl was perky in exploring Haym’s ornithological erudition concerning the life of swallows, but again the low register fell out of the nest. The parallel thirds in the stately “Io t’abbraccio” duet with Rodelinda highlighted Scholl’s vocal shortcomings, especially in comparison with Lucy Crowe. Whilst the soprano plucked off scintillating G-sharps and A-naturals, her newly reunited husband had serious projection problems below the stave. By “Chi di voi fu più infedele” Scholl was obviously tiring. The D-flats were labored and low C-flat on “m’ingannò” barely audible. The fiery “Vivi tiranno!” with its wide tessitura again presented problems in the low register and there were a lot of inaudible low B-flats. Solo oboe had much more assurance and virtuosity.

The Title Heroine

The presumed widow Rodelinda is far from merry for most of the opera. Making her Oper Frankfurt debut, distinguished British soprano Lucy Crowe looked gorgeous and sang with a suitably lachrymose but burnished timbre. “Hò perduto il caro sposo” was poignant and vocally judicious but minus the da capo and “Che farò” coda. “L’empio rigor del fato” displayed stellar semi-quaver scales and roulades with a tasteful adagio cadenza on “m’hai legato il piè.”

The Staffordshire soprano continued the somber mood in “Ombre, piante, urne funeste!” (despite Bertarido’s funeral urn being a mere wall plaque) with some deliciously light trilling exchanges with solo traverse flute. A splendidly controlled diminuendo F-sharp fermata on “ombre” before the da capo embellishments was very fine Handel singing indeed. There was more meat in “Morrai sì, l’empia tua testa” with an exciting cadenza before “trono”. “Sono i colpi della sorte” was a crowd pleasing triumph and Crowe sang two dazzling cadenzas climbing to a B-natural on “bramar” and “né più bel dono” detonating an explosion of justified applause.

Although paced more lugubriously than andante, “Ritorna oh caro” was memorable for some limpid high notes with pure Ameling-esque A-naturals. When wrongly believing her husband to be dead for a second time, Rodelinda’s “Se’l mio duol non è si forte” had impressive word colouring and nuanced phrasing. An interpolated top B-flat embellishment in the da capo was impressive without losing musical integrity. “Mio caro bene!” had a Zerlina-ish charm with some pingy G-naturals and crisp macarto crotchets. Curiously the short “Vedendoti contento” section was cut. The only criticism of Crowe’s performance was that her diction was generally desultory, especially in the recitatives.

“Rodelinda” concludes with the frolicking “Dopo la notte oscura” ensemble and the festive tambourine and frothy flutes ensured a happy ending. Except of course for Grimaldo who was dispatched by Bertarido’s trusty spada and also Flavio who is still pursued by demons.

The irksome imp permeated the production right up to the final curtain.


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