The Canadian Opera Company’s inaugural performance of the 280-years-young Rodelinda is a fascinating—if occasionally frustrating—production that brings together vocal excellence, symbolic, functional and quasi-contemporary staging and a merry band of minstrels trying to glue all of the disparate parts into a homogenous whole. Ironically, it’s the attempt at instrumental vérité from the pit that feels so at odds with the visual and aural components just a few feet above.
The biggest challenge facing today’s artistic directors when planning a Baroque opera is authenticity. Source materials (performance manuscripts and parts, critical writing and correspondence—often composer to patron/producer or publisher) frequently pose more questions than they solve. Slipping a DVD into a player to “see” what Handel actually did is an impossibility today. Enter the musicologists who toil away for eons trying to unravel the musical and textural mysteries to produce the “definitive” edition (in this case, Andrew Jones).
But with every early performance subject to casting, venue and musical changes (inserting/deleting arias, using different keys to flatter a singer’s range, adding some brass for “Royal” effect …) no one can say with surety that “this is what the composer and librettist intended!” In this way, early music is more attuned to jazz than “the classics.”
No worries, then: everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong (not unlike the field of criticism itself!).
Yet continuo performer and conductor Harry Bicket managed to further muddy the waters by extolling his charges to leave their vibrato at the door and over-amplify the harpsichord and Daniel Swenberg’s always tasteful theorbo and Baroque guitar interventions, effectively covering cellist Margaret Gay’s ever-dependable bass line. To be sure, there were many moments of great warmth and discreet endings, but when called to full-cry allegros the effect was tight and frantic (occasionally offside at the cadences) rather than heroic and driving. The personification, as it were, of the line “I avoid emotion in favour of cunning.”
For its part, the cast was an impressive banquet of talent and excellence. Countertenor Gerald Thompson’s COC début as the deposed then resurrected Bertarido was a marvel of tone, technique and temperament. His Act II declamation of rage brought the enraptured audience to an emotional standstill that was as stunning as it is rare in modern performing arts. His protector and range colleague, Daniel Taylor as Unulflo, was glad of the company as he traversed the heights with aplomb and sensitivity. Michael Colvin’s Grimoaldo was a fine piece of character development, but suffered from a few lapses of pitch while navigating the descending lines. As the conniving, power-hungry Garibaldo, Peter Savidge was spot on—assured a place in the Senate but for an untimely death on the rampart of blind ambition.
The two sisters (Danielle de Niese, musically exquisite as Rodelinda, Marie-Nicole Lemieux effective and competent even in her bawdy, cheap-laugh business) taunted, teased and triumphed over their male counterparts with ease, yet the highest pitches weren’t always produced by the “fairer” sex—truly a play for our times.
Bringing this all together was director Tim Albery who abandoned the notion of delivering a period piece, preferring suit and tie/gaudy prints to majesterial weaves. Albery’s vision was masterfully aided and abetted by Dany Lyne’s roof-as-life-journey set and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting plot (but was the James Bond “red sphere” a Pop Culture reference or unintended statement of how film images, like a “stolen” motif—cross-reference below—produce unexpected associations?).
This Rodelinda, whose notion that “Tyranny must continue to keep a kingdom” provides much grist for the artistic mill but also reinforces the sad reality that its moral “truth” resonates convincingly in any epoch. JWR