Handel’s Rodelinda, another opera not heard in Pittsburgh for over twenty years, received the first performance of its current run at the intimate CAPA Theater on Saturday evening, January 24. Presented with a cast consisting of young Resident Artists of the company, the work gave better opportunities for the up-and-coming to display their talents in more substantial parts. The audience was almost as large as the smaller venue could accommodate. At the Pittsburgh Opera’s usual home, the Benedum, “Pippin” was being performed before (judging from street and sidewalk traffic) what must have been a capacity audience. It tweaked the writer’s imagination to wonder if “Pippin” will be remembered three centuries from now, the length of time Handel’s work has survived since its premiere.
Rodelinda was first performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London, in February 1725. Over the next ten years or so, each revival brought modifications to the score and libretto, so the version of the opera we hear today as compared to what the original audience heard must be left to music scholars to discern. But, for the present, the opera (originally in three acts but pared to two for this production) is scored to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, a variation of an even earlier libretto by Antonio Salvi set by Giacomo Antonio Perti in 1710. Salvi’s libretto was inspired by Pierre Corneille’s 1653 play “Pertharite, roi des Lombards,” which was based on the history of Perctarit, King of the Lombards in the 7th century.
The simple plot involves a day in the life of Rodelinda, the grieving Queen who has been led to believe that her husband, the rightful King, is dead; the machinations of his tyrant usurper to compromise her fidelity, with the prodding of a devious Duke who has every intention of grabbing the throne for himself, and their various accomplices and confidantes. It ends with good triumphing over evil.
Michael Beattie conducted the lilting strains of the piece, which frequently seem at odds with the ominous and villainous elements of the libretto, quite well. He demonstrated a sure understanding of the score, and brought from the predominately-female orchestra a well-balanced and pleasing reading that resonated well without subordinating the singers. Period instruments such as the viola da gamba, theorbo, and harpsichord were delightfully played by Chatham Baroque members Patricia Halverson and Scott Pauly, and Mark Twarka, respectively. It was, as a whole, a thoroughly enjoyable rendering for lovers of Baroque music.
Tenor Adam Bonanni, as Grimoaldo, the would-be usurper, is a first-year Resident Artist with the company, and despite a bit of nervousness, which was obvious at the beginning but faded as the work progressed – and an almost cartoonish costume – managed to deliver a capable interpretation of the role. It may have been first-night jitters that caused his generally pleasing voice to not always seem perfectly under his control, since as the evening went on, he seemed to grow less aware of himself and more in sympathy with the character, and sang and acted the part in a better, more effective style. It is easy to predict that with time and experience that even better things may be expected of him.
Bass Phillip Gay (pictured above), as the Duke, Garibaldo, Grimoaldo’s devious “counsellor,” sang the part quite effectively, and with a strong, well-schooled voice, but in action never seemed quite able to “lose” himself in the character. His mannerisms and acting too often were more indicative of his own personality, and this, added to his unique hairstyle (which should have been covered with a wig) made him many times appear out of place and disjointed from the work as a whole, despite the fact that in staging and design, the opera’s general appearance is ambiguously left to the imagination, and could be set in a time countless years in the past, or some century in the future. Whichever take one favored, his performance seemed to be focused entirely on his voice and persona, and not the character or ensemble. In fairness, this may have been the director’s intention, but it didn’t succeed. We have seen better work from this young and talented singer, and will undoubtedly see it again.
Soprano Jasmine Muhammad (pictured above), in the title role, sang with the beautiful voice well-known to local operagoers, and acted the part in a highly effective manner. She is a treat to the eye and ear, and possesses vocal and histrionic abilities quite exceptional, facts that were amply appreciated and attested to by the audience at the close of the performance.
Mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian, as Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, betrothed to Grimoaldo, more than surpassed the expectations her previous appearances in the small role of Emilia in Otello aroused in November. She, like Muhammad, possesses a fine voice and stage appearance, and it is quite easy to imagine that a distinguished career for her is unfolding before our eyes. Her Act II duet with Muhammad was not only perhaps the finest singing of the evening; it brought an audible burst of appreciation – and perhaps relief – as it was not only exquisitely beautiful, but was also a welcome respite to the almost total lack of such a moment in the first act, which was predominately recitative with an occasionally distinguished aria.
Mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings (pictured below), as Bertarido, the usurped King of Lombardy, sang and acted the “pants role” (sung at the premiere by a castrato alto) in a highly effective manner. Her voice is strong and beautiful, and in action she was every inch a dignified and effective “King.” Hers was by far one of the great offerings of the performance.
Zachary Wood, as Unulfo, Bertarido’s friend and counsellor (another role originally sung by a castrato alto, but now, a countertenor), sang the part well and acted it capably. His voice is haunting and he has a fine stage appearance.
In the mute role of Flavio, son of Bertarido and Rodelinda, little Simon Nigam scampered about the stage for two long acts with intense concentration throughout. Why the poor little boy was so beggarly costumed and barefooted the entire evening on the painted wooden stage of a cold January night is something the director would have to explain, but it was disorienting and slightly disturbing, even though at no time did he seem to be under duress or in any distress.
The opera will be repeated on January 27, 30, and February 1.
For full upcoming production, cast, schedule, and ticket information, please visit www.pittsburghopera.org
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.
“The Artistic Team” for Rodelinda –
Crystal Manich, Stage Director; Holly O’Hara, Set Designer; Karen Anselm, Costume Designer; Paul Hackenmueller, Lighting Designer;Chatham Baroque, Guest Musicians; Nicole Pagano, Hair & Make-up Designer; Glenn Lewis, Head of Music; Mark Trawka, Director of Musical Studies and Continuo; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist;Jennifer Williams, Assistant Director; Tara E. Kovach, Stage Manager;David Bachman, Photography.
Performance Date: January 24, 2015