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Energetic Rodelinda proves refreshing

Keller Auditorium
02/08/2008 -  and Feb. 10, 14*, 16
George Frideric Handel: Rodelinda
Jennifer Aylmer (Rodelinda), Robert Breault (Grimoaldo), Garibaldo (Valerian Ruminski), Eduige (Emma Curtis), Bertarido (Jennifer Hines), Unulfo (Gerald Thomas), James Michael Sherman-Lewis (Flavio), Robert Ainsley (chorus director), Portland Opera Orchestra, George Manahan (conductor), Helena Binder (stage director), Thomas Munn (lighting designer)

Almost three centuries later, Handel and Baroque opera are thoroughly back in fashion. Finally, Portland is getting a piece of the action.

One of Handel’s 42 operas, Rodelinda (1725), earned unexpected star status in the 2005-06 Metropolitan Opera season. Last year, the Seattle Opera performed a superb Giulio Cesare (1724).

But Portland has not heard much of Handel’s operatic repertoire, other than a 1999 poorly presented and even more poorly received Giulio Cesare.

This month, and eight years later, the Portland Opera staged its first Rodelinda and recruited a cast to take Handel’s brilliant vocal writing and orchestration to a buoyant intensity.

The entire cast was new to the Portland stage, other than conductor George Manahan of the New York City Opera. Manahan understood that a house the size of the Keller (3,000) took the risk of engulfing the vibrant and texturally lighter music than that of later operas.

So, in this production, modern instruments are used, though we are treated to a continuo with the theorbo (a Baroque guitar), harpsichord and cello.

For many contemporary operagoers, the gender bending that a Handel opera requires today is a new, and sometimes disturbing, experience. In the 18th century, “castrati” sang women’s roles. Today, to produce Handel properly, women sing serious men’s roles and male countertenors (such as Gerald Thompson, who sings Unulfo) carry prominent parts. But how exciting to hear voices that do not match our gender expectations. Sure, we must suspend our imaginations, which most operas require whether or not women are singing men’s roles.

Jennifer Hines’ rich contralto voice gave weight to her Bertarido, the king who has been driven from the throne, and causes his wife, Rodelinda (soprano Jennifer Aylmer), to fight off suitors who want her hand and the throne. (Aylmer did not sing opening night due to a bronchial infection, but performed convincingly during this Feb. 14 performance).

As the opera progresses, Rodelinda maneuvers her way through political machinations and treachery. She remains the strong and faithful central character. When Nicola Haym wrote the libretto, he made sure Rodelinda had more arias than the other, more vacillating characters.

The plotting Grimoaldo, Garibaldo and Eduige, who has his or her sights set on the throne, give up their fight once Bertarido returns to his kingdom, decides his wife has kept the faith and kills off Garibaldo.

Other than Garibaldo’s dying, everyone survives. As in a Shakespearean comedy, couples marry and recommit in the end. Eduige marries Grimoaldo, and Rodelinda and Bertarido reunite with each other and with the throne with great pomp in the final act.

It is the romantic, tuneful, well-crafted arias and duets that form the substance of the opera, many given to Rodelinda, the moral centerpiece of the story. The sets, minimalist and stylized, leave the stage to the singers. The supernumeraries, though they do not sing, are used stylistically and somewhat humorously to change scenes or to add or subtract props.

Neither tragedy nor comedy, it is a happy opera.
Rodelinda is ultimately an optimistic, uplifting piece. The final “tutti”: “Dopo la notte oscura piu lucidopiu chiaro, piu amabile, piu caro, ne spunta il sol quaggiu.” (“After the dark night the sun that appears here below is brighter, clear, more lovely and more precious.”)

And why not such light and beauty for an ending? After all, Handel was one of Mozart’s favorite composers, and it is quite possible some of Handel’s buoyancy and cheerfulness rubbed off on Mozart.

Angela Allen



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