More than many opera seria, Handel's 1725 Italian opera, "Rodelinda", provides such a palpable story of jealousy, revenge and undying devotion that it is no wonder the opera itself has been given such widely diverse translations over the years. I was fortunate to experience two wonderful productions of "Rodelinda" just this past year. The first was Stephen Wadsworth's elaborate Metropolitan Opera production set on a beautiful 18th-century country estate, starring superstar soprano Renée Fleming in the title role and the extraordinary countertenor David Daniels as her husband Bertarido. The second also starred Daniels but with rising soprano Catherine Naglestad in David Alden's expressionistic film noir adaptation at the San Francisco Opera (first staged by Munich's Bavarian State Opera).
The 1998 Glyndebourne Festival production, directed by Jean-Marie Villegier and captured on this DVD, takes yet another creative path by setting the story in the black-and-white world of 1920's silent cinema. Completely different in execution and style, all three versions simply prove how the highly charged drama and soaring music translate easily in almost any period setting. Although Alden's production is more audacious and heavily symbolic, Villegier brings a relatively simplified approach to the storyline and encourages a highly stylized, silent screen type of acting from his cast. For the most part, it works, and the minimalist sets by Nicolas de Lajartre and Pascale Cazales provide an effective counterpoint. Costume designer Patrice Cauchetier, however, sometimes gets carried away with the fussy, anachronistic clothing she provides, which does little to enhance the performances.
Fortunately, the stellar cast is strong enough to transcend such stylizations and shortcomings. In the demanding title role that requires a strong enough voice to carry eight significant arias, veteran soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci is a fiery presence who conveys defiance with ease and feels at home with elaborately expressive vocal lines. Truth be told, her vibrato can be off-putting at times, and her regal demeanor works against the emotion of the more vulnerable passages, for example, during her extravagant rendition of the heartbreaking Act III aria, "Se 'l mio duol non e si forte," in which Rodelinda thinks her husband Bertarido is dead. However, Antonacci's passion and professionalism carry the day.
As Daniels has proven recently, Bertarido is one of the truly great roles for an accomplished countertenor. Luckily, Andreas Scholl has a beautiful, emotive voice and fluently handles the wide range of singing from the melancholy of "Dove sei, amato bene?" to the anger of "Vivi, tiranno!" with equal ease. Scholl is at his peak during his poignant Act II arias, "Con rauco mormorio" and "Scacciata dal suo nido", where his coloratura is particularly impressive. As an actor, however, he is not as charismatic a presence as Daniels (at least back in 1998 when Scholl was starting to emerge on the scene) and consequently tends toward a certain banality for a king who has been not only deposed but left for dead. All is forgiven, however, with the much anticipated duet between Antonacci and Scholl which ends Act II, the magnificent "le t'abbraccio", which does not disappoint.
The rest of the cast handles their roles with uncommon skill - tenor Kurt Streit as the impatient usurper Grimoaldo, baritone Umberto Chiummo as the dastardly henchman Garibaldo, countertenor Artur Stefanowicz as Bertarido's faithful sidekick Unulfo, and mezzo-soprano Louise Winter as Bertarido's sister Eduige. All sing magnificently in this production, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment complements the voices perfectly under the seasoned baton of William Christie. The one major drawback is the way the opera is filmed in overly dark shadows, especially at the beginning, and the alternating long and medium shots that seem unnecessarily busy at times. The visual edginess and restlessness tend to distract from the onstage drama when the focus should be on the beauty of the music. Regardless, this is a faithful record of a Handel masterwork wonderfully performed. The superb Baroque music speaks for itself.