PBS: Great Performances at the Met: Rodelinda

When I’m not listening to talk radio, I’ll listen to classical music so the PBS “Great Performances at the Met: ‘Rodelinda'” is just my cup of tea–and I can sip it gradually for a cozy evening. Even after I’ve watched the Queen Rodelinda have her virtue questioned by her husband  and threatened the usurper, I can just as happily listen to the music with the soaring voices as background music to my daily life. That’s the beauty of on-demand opera.”Rodelinda” premiered in NY on19 April 2012, but the rest of us had to wait until today, 22 April 2012 (Check local listings) to see Renée Fleming in a revival of the Stephen Wadsworth production.

Starring as the title character, Renée Fleming was in the original 2004 run and championed this Baroque opera. Joining her in this revival is Stephanie Blythe who was also in the original 2004 production.

Although meant for a cozier venue than the Met, this production of  George Frideric Handel’s 1725 opera features some cleanly stylish sets and Matthew Diamond, the director of the telecast, provides plenty of closeups to keep that intimate feel .

While the score seems repetitive, the singers try to give shades of meaning to each phrase.

Handel wrote “Rodelinda” in 1725 and Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto is based on Antonio Salvi’s libretto. Salvi’s libretto is based on a play by Pierre Corneille– the 1653″Pertharite, Roi des Lombards.”

Historical Background

The real king, Perctarit, was king of the Lombards (or Langobards) from 661 to 662 and after some intrigue became king again from 671 to 688 when he died. The Lombards were a Germanic tribe who ruled an area of Italy from 567 to 774.

Perctarit succeeded his father, Aripert I, and the Catholic Perctarit shared power with his Arian brother Godepert. Perctarit ruled from Milan and Godepert from Pavia. Sharing power doesn’t always work well and Godepert asked the Duke Grimoald I of Benevento to support him in a war against Perctarit, but you can’t expect loyalty from a traitor. Grimoald assassinated Godepert and Perctarit fled leaving behind his wife, Rodelinde, and their son, Cunincpert, who were captured by Grimoald.

Grimoald married Godepert’s sister, Theodota.

Rodelinde and Cunincpert were sent to the province of Benevento. Perctarit returned, by was again forced to flee, this time to France. As Perctarit was preparing to go to England, he learned that Grimoald had died. By 671, Perctarit returned and took the throne away from Grimoald I’s young son, Garibald.

Handel’s opera

The original title of Handel’s opera, “Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi,” tells you that the play is about the queen. The action isn’t set in 600s, but in the much prettier times of Handel. Before the opening of the opera, Grimoaldo has defeated Bertarido (Andreas Scholl), Rodelinda’s husband, the king. While Rodelinda and the rest of the court in Milan believe the king is dead, with the help of his trusty friend Unulfo (Iestyn Davies), Bertarido is alive and in Milan.

Grimoaldo (Joseph Kaiser) was betrothed to Bertarido’s sister, Eduige (Blythe), but she has stalled on setting a date for the wedding, and now Grimoaldo wishes to marry Rodelinda (Fleming in an attention-grabbing red wig) and holds her captive in the palace with her son Flavio.

While the main action is the dirty dealings of the adults, Handel reminds us what this is really all about. When the curtain opens, we see a young boy. He’s sharing the bed with another person who we later realize is his mother Rodelinda. The boy casts off the bed sheets and drags his toy horse across the room. He tries the doors. They are locked and we realized this grand dark room is really a gilded cage. The boy might play with prettily painted wooden soldiers, but the reality of war is his shackled mother.

In order to protect her son, Rodelinda must be brave and confront her enemies. But just who are her friends? Eduige, her sister-in-law, who is in love with the man who now wishes to claim not only her husband’s throne, but also Rodelinda herself? Then there’s court advisor Garibaldo (Shenyang) who tries to manipulate everyone because he wants the throne for himself.

The backstabbing and double dealing was meant to play more subtly but these actors must play to the cheap seats and in close up the expressions and actions might seem melodramatic. Also the contrast between the bad characters and the virtuous ones is clearly signaled by the different tones.  The deeper tones–Grimaoaldo’s tenor, Garibaldo’s bass and Eduige’s alto, mark them as the bad boys. Bertarido and Unulfo are altos and Rodelinda is a soprano.

The Met audiences loved  it well enough in 2006 for the Met to bring it back in 2011.

Thanks to PBS, you didn’t have to be in NYC in 2006 or 2011. You don’t even half to spend most of the day in a special live broadcast event that was held last year at various theaters.

You can watch opera in your home. From what I hear, we’re getting the better deal–not only financially. According to a recent article in “The New Yorker,” the Met now stages operas keeping in mind that they will be filmed and broadcast. That means the staging is meant for the camera angles.

Soprano Deborah Voight hosts and extras include seeing her walking through the sets, interviewing the leads as well as the person who manages those complicated set changes.

If you love Handel’s music, don’t miss this “Great Performance” of “Rodelinda.”

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