Handel’s True Colors Revealed: A Great Composer for the Stage

The so-called Handel opera revival has prompted the disinterment of so many treasures from the Baroque master’s once-buried trove of roughly 40 stage works that it might be more accurate to say that we’re in the midst of a Handel rush. Locally, the New York City Opera has done most of the digging, first with its landmark production of Julius Caesar in 1966, and more recently with a string of the composer’s gems produced in conjunction with the Handel-happy Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.

As appealing as most of those productions have been, and as valuable as they have proved in promoting a new breed of young singers who gargle Baroque cabalettas before breakfast, the operas themselves tend to blur in the memory. The Glimmerglass–City Opera team, for the most part, has approached Handel as a wonderful old tunesmith with a weakness for hopelessly convoluted plots that need lashings of contemporary irony to make them palatable to today’s audiences. The productions have tended to obscure Handel’s dramatic genius with set designs that transport the antique settings to semiotic never-never lands, and with arch stage business that turns the emotional storms between the characters into tempests in a postmodern teapot.

The shining achievement of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Rodelinda: Regina de’ Longobardi is to show Handel’s true colors, not just as a master of vocal seduction but as the greatest composer for the stage between Monteverdi and Mozart. Rodelinda had its premiere in London in 1725, at the peak of Handel’s English career. It demonstrates a perfect convergence of lyricism and drama that’s rare for operas of any period, let alone those of the early 18th century, when the prevailing convention dictated a structure enslaved to one da capo aria after another, strung together with recitatives.

Rodelinda, like many operas of its time, is derived from a 17th-century French drama (in this case, Corneille’s Perthorixe, Roi des Lombards) and updated to feed the Enlightenment taste for stories in which reason and communal harmony triumph over unruly passion and personal ambition. The opera’s eponymous heroine is a queen who remains steadfast to her deposed, missing husband in the face of his usurper’s campaign to marry her and gain royal legitimacy-even if her fidelity means the sacrifice of her beloved son.

As usual with these things, there are enough overlapping and underhanded personal agendas at work to make easy explication impossible. Less usual is the complexity that Handel gave to the opera’s six vocal characters, bestowing on each of them extraordinarily beautiful and revealing arias cunningly arranged to tighten the psychological interplay. A coup de théâtre occurs in the second-act duet between Rodelinda and her husband, Bertarido. Their surprise at finding themselves precariously reunited in vocal lines that cling like vines is mirrored by our realization that this is the first time we’ve heard more than one voice at a time.

The Met’s Rodelinda, which has been directed by Stephen Wadsworth, enriches this masterpiece on every level. A few years ago, Mr. Wadsworth proved his Handelian mettle with a staging of Xerxes that’s been triumphantly mounted by a half-dozen American opera companies, including City Opera. As with that production, Rodelinda locates the action in Handel’s own time, in a picturesque country setting-here, an estate in Lombard (the Italian country house of your dreams) bathed in a golden light that reinforces the opera’s concerns with the dawning of the Enlightenment.

But this is not a staging that could work in any other opera house. Scaled for an audience many times larger than the crowd of 850 that filled the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket at the premiere, the production utilizes the Met’s vast technical resources to take us, at the flick of a backstage switch, from the estate’s garden and stables to a library of rare books stocked to J.P. Morgan’s standards. Sometimes we’re indoors and outdoors at the same time. The fluent changes of scene ravish the eye as smoothly as the music ravishes the ear.

More important, the production doesn’t stint on human detail. The night before Rodelinda’s opening, I attended an Aïda at the Met, during which the singers scarcely glanced at each other in their eagerness to knock ’em dead in the Family Circle. (Singing the title role was the much-talked-about young American soprano Angela Brown, the subject of a recent front-page article in The New York Times, whose undeniable opulence of sound in the top register was offset by a thinness of tone in her middle range and wavering control over her large vibrato.) In Handel’s plots, the characters are even more inescapably enmeshed than in most operas, and in Rodelinda the performers sang to one another as though their lives depended on it. Mr. Wadsworth even managed to give the supernumeraries-the seen-but-not-heard servants and guardsmen-a presence. In the silent but pivotal role of Flavio, Rodelinda’s young son, 10-year-old Zachary Vail Elkind was so fully observant of the passions swirling around him that he held our attention as firmly as did his noisy elders.

It was some noise. The Met would not have mounted the opera but for the desire of its reigning prima donna, Renée Fleming, to show her stuff in the title character’s eight exquisite arias, and it turned out to be a role that suited her, dramatically and musically, as well as anything she’s ever done. She delivered everything in her extravagant arsenal-glowing sound, dazzling figuration, melting pianissimos, blazing fireworks-but it was done with the formidable Rodelinda in mind, not the formidable Renée Fleming. And never have I seen less strain in her dramatic assumption of a character: Rodelinda’s resourcefulness comes naturally to her.

And yet Ms. Fleming didn’t steal the show. In one of the most uniformly strong casts that the Met has assembled in years, David Daniels as Bertarido, the deposed king, and Bejun Mehta as the noble counselor Unulfo engaged in a sweet duel of countertenors that ended, triumphantly, in a draw. The commanding mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was a gorgeously rock-solid Eduige. John Relyea, a young Canadian bass-baritone with powerful projection and matinee-idol looks, gave the unscrupulous Garibaldo robust sex appeal. The South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg, who was making his Met debut, portrayed the volatile usurper Grimoaldo with steely wit and, in the end, a disintegration into sanity that was like watching a great Lear in reverse.

Keeping the whole thing buoyantly afloat was the English conductor Harry Bicket, a noted Handel specialist. One is not accustomed to thinking of the Met Orchestra players as a top-notch Baroque band. But that’s what they sounded like-lean, transparent and light on their feet. When the final curtain came down, the first-night audience didn’t rush for the exits at the ungodly hour of 11:40 p.m. but sat happily in place, savoring the afterglow of a delectable Handel rush.

Handel’s True Colors Revealed: A Great Composer for the Stage