Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought in a crew he presumably could trust for his new Theater an der Wien Rodelinda. That would be his son Philipp, who did the directional honors with a slightly amateurish but mostly compelling modernized production of this dark opera. Harnoncourt the elder and his orchestra supplied most of the glamor of the evening, though with resident Baroque sex symbols Malena Ernman and Danielle De Niese in the cast there was plenty of undressing onstage as well, this being modern and all. It all turns out somewhat better than it may deserve to.
Handel, Rodelinda. Theater an der Wien, 3/22/2011. New production by Philipp Harnoncourt, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concentus Musicus Wien and Danielle De Niese (Rodelinda), Bejun Mehta (Bertarido), Kurt Streit (Grimoaldo), Konstantin Wolff (Garibaldo), Malena Ernman (Eduige), Matthias Rexroth (Unulfo).
This post marks a new way of writing for me, which I hope y’all will like. For this performance I’ve gone official! If you go here, you can read my more-concise-than-usual review on the excellent classical music website Bachtrack. It says this, among other things:
Philipp Harnoncourt eschews the jokey post-modern antics of many Handel productions in favor of a realistic, deadly serious approach. The entire production takes place around a grim cement apartment block whose exact geographic location is never clear. The multi-level set revolves to reveal different locations and personalities, from the thugs’ hangout to teenagers and children, showing more than one group at once… But Harnoncourt’s creativity can get the best of him, and sometimes the multiple mini-dramas unfolding at once obscure the narrative thrust and emotional arc of the plot…Yet in a broad sense the production is successful, and the drama gripping.
Go read the rest! (And look around this interesting website!) But here I shall elaborate on a few points. I think this format may free me from my unfortunate compulsion to be comprehensive.
This production gave off a slightly unfinished air at times, in need of a good editor who would cut the extraneous bits. There’s so much going on that has only tangential relation to the plot. You suspect the director fears a vacuum and doesn’t trust himself or the material. And some of the staging itself wasn’t convincingly done, occasionally slipping into unintentional comedy, most notably when Grimoaldo ambushes Rodelinda and Bertarido by popping out of a wardrobe. You maybe could play Rodelinda as a black comedy, but that’s not what this production did. In fact, its unending bleakness was rather exhausting, visually monotonous and just kind of drab, though ultimately fitting for the opera. It’s a gloomy piece.
This was maybe the inverse of the Staatsoper’s Alcina from last November. There, I thought the big picture was severely lacking but the aria-level Personenregie was pretty good. Here, the big picture was right, but on the detailed level things were amiss. Some arias were good: I particularly liked the staging of Rodelinda’s “Se’l mio duol non è si forte,” in which she torturously walks up and down a staircase. The last act was definitely the strongest. This is the point when many productions go downhill, so that suggests that the basic concept is good. Both productions were, on the whole, more or less successful, but neither quite ideal.
I have to say I don’t quite get the immense buzz around Malena Ernman. I know it probably has to do with looks and her spectacularly Europop Eurovision song (DeNiese definitely has her looks to thank as well), but while she’s perfectly fine I just don’t hear her as anything particularly special. She can sing low notes, but the tone is dull and lacks resonance. De Niese, for her part, is really compelling in person and knows how to give a smart performance, but her coloratura was surprisingly sloppy and I found her pop-influenced phrasing just infuriating. The cut of most of one of her arias (“Morra, si”) was musically awkward, and while I don’t know why it was cut I have to wonder if her singing had something to do with it–it’s not an easy aria, with a lot of long exposed runs. And in “Spietati, io vi giurai,” she copied Dorothea Röschmann’s ornamentations–only an octave lower!
But the orchestra is really great and you should go see it for them. And Bejun Mehta, who is spectacular (as I say in the full review above).
I’ll still be blogging here in the regular manner as well, but am going to be working with this two-part format more as well, we’ll see how it all works out.
Photos copyright Werner Kmetitisch