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Woman in Chains

December 09, 2011

Renée Fleming, Andreas Scholl, and Stephanie Blythe Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
Before it gets away from me I did want to say a few words about the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of Handel’s Rodelinda, which will conclude its run in New York on Saturday. I was in the audience last Saturday and have to say I had a great time, though admittedly sometimes for the wrong reasons. There is much about this opera that doesn’t work in this particular house. The Met has very little experience with Baroque operas, and the house, which is already too big for the works of Gluck and Mozart, is seriously ill-proportioned for Handel. The production was originally another star vehicle for Renée Fleming in 2004 and she returned to headline the revival as well. And love her though I do, vocally she is not the biggest attraction in this particular music, which cuts against her strengths of warmth and richness with a lot of fine detail that she never really does justice to.

Andreas Scholl and Iestyn Davies Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011
But I felt really especially sympathetic towards her on Saturday for her pluck and perseverance in Stephen Wadsworth’s campy production. The novelty of the show is that Wadsworth has laid out the different scenes in a very wide linear set that moves left and right as the opera progresses bringing new portions into view for the audience. The setting is the 18th century which is good enough as any, but Wadsworth cannot resist histrionic gestures often undercutting the actual emotional content of scenes. Rage is most often expressed by throwing books or other objects to the floor. Fleming first appears on stage shackled by the wrist to a bed post by way of a long chain. As if this didn’t look silly enough, once removed on Saturday, the prop got wedged between the set and stage apron in the moving machinery, eventually dragging the bed along with the characters as they started to move into the next part of the moving set. The bed then got wedged up against the proscenium as stage hands tried to secrete the wayward furniture back into the wings. There was plenty of romping around and costume changes in the stable to enjoy after this. But, perhaps the most audacious moment, though, and the one that showed Fleming’s true mark of a diva, was her choice to overlook Wadsworth’s decision for the second countertenor (an excellent Iestyn Davies as Unulfo) to have abdominal surgery performed on him while laying on a table in the library as she sings her big concluding aria. As much as I like to rail against operatic conventions, can't we give the diva her moment at the end without whiskey-soaked wounds and cries of pain in the background? Just asking.

All of these unintentional chuckles were met with some spectacular singing, though, from the rest of the cast. There was the nearly miraculous Stephanie Blythe, of course, as Eduige. And then there was the splendid Andreas Scholl as Rodelinda’s husband, the deposed King Bertarido. Scholl is perhaps the most accomplished countertenor before the public and he sounded like it on Saturday with real agility and lightness to his sound. And yet he filled the house well under the thoughtful conducting of Harry Bicket. Earlier this year I had mentioned the soprano Lucy Crowe may have had the best U.S. Premiere of any singer this year, but now I feel she has might serious competition for that title from that same surgical patient, Iestyn Davies who appeared as Unulfo. He's commanding on stage with staggering vocal technique. It's the kind of voice where one begins to wonder, where has this guy been all this time. We need more of Mr. Davies vocalism around these parts, and soon. So whether the show's star gets the treatment she deserves, this Rodelinda is a good time and there are ticket's still available for tomorrow.


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