You Can Teach an Old Opera New Tricks… But Is It Really Necessary?

Stephen Wadsworth gives the Met’s <em>Rodelinda</em> a Zeffirelli-strength injection of dramatic activity

But there is still a sense that Baroque operas need to be helped along, that, unembellished, they are essentially boring. The da capo aria form can be relentless in its formal purity: there is an “A” section, followed by a “B” section (often in a contrasting mood) and then a repeat of the “A” section, usually with some degree of ornamentation.

Mr. Wadsworth has been praised for solving this “problem” and making Baroque opera work for a contemporary audience. He directs the arias with lots of action. Something on stage almost always happens to “trigger” the B section, and then something else happens to bring the mood back to A. But grafting a sense of modern dramatic continuity—Stanislavski-style “motivation”—onto a form that predates it sometimes leaves the singers, especially the less talented actors among them, looking less motivated than merely busy.

When Mr. Scholl sang “Dove sei,” when the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne used to sing “Vivi tiranno,”: in these moments, performance itself is the point. The content, the emotions, are clear just from the singing.