According to Deborah Voigt’s script, Handel opera is too intimate and domestic for the stage, and it has only become popular of late because it’s been championed by the likes of Renée Fleming. Oh, come on – La Bohème and La Traviata are far more intimate than any of Handel’s operas, which are actually mostly about Gods, Emperors and Wars – yet neither Puccini nor Verdi would appear to be absent from the stage. No – Handel has become an operatic staple over the past half century or so owing to the influence of such groups as the Handel Opera Society and, mainly, to the Early Music movement in Europe which gave rise to a new breed of countertenors able to replicate the castrati’s singing of Handel’s most heroic roles.
It’s the countertenors who reign supreme in this revival of the 2004 production by Stephen Wadsworth, which introduced Met audiences to the work for the first time on that stage, six years after Andreas Scholl made his Glyndebourne debut as Bertarido. Scholl began his first recitative here a little tentatively, but by the time he began ‘Dove sei, amato bene’ everything had fallen into place – the nobility of tone, evenness of timbre and eloquence of phrasing we expect from this singer were all there, as well as the excitement generated by his fluency with even the most difficult divisions and his ability to make it seem as though a single phrase can hang in the air with so much portent. He blazed through ‘Vivi, Tiranno’ with brilliant ornamentation, although it was a pity that we had to squint in order to see him do it.
Iestyn Davies is apparently the first British countertenor to sing at the Met, and he made a striking debut as Unulfo, his acting as sympathetic as his singing was beautiful – ‘Fra tempeste’ was a high point of the evening. Joseph Kaiser blustered convincingly as the to-be-reformed usurper, and Shenyang revealed a nicely developing Handelian bass as Garibaldo. Stephanie Blythe is about as convincing a Handel singer as she is a dewy-eyed Princess, that is to say hardly at all, but her lovely little arioso after the reunion with her brother revealed her lovely, burnished tone and sincerity of phrasing.
Renée Fleming played the diva throughout, sometimes singing and acting more as though she were Bertarido’s mother than his wife. She has a great voice, no question, and its heartening to see the passion with which she clearly loves this music, but she is not really a great Handel interpreter. If you are unclear as to what this means you might like to have a look at the Glyndebourne DVD of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Scholl singing the great duet ‘Io t’abbraccio’ – seven minutes of sheer class.
In terms of the production, a look at Glyndebourne’s might also be instructive, especially in the personenregie look how Scholl holds Antonacci, then look at him and Fleming; not the pair’s fault, really, but leaving your cast to emote attractively is not helpful in this music. There was so much school-drama style stomping about and grimacing going on that it was probably a blessing that for most of the house, the lighting was too dim to see very much. The set moves from side to side and up and down – yawn – and veers between a Library and what appear to be stables, with lo! a real horsey featuring at one point. Kudos to that animal for not whinnying a spot of recitative.
Harry Bicket, the Brit in the pit, coaxed decent playing from the Met’s orchestra, alert as he always is to the needs of the singers in terms of phrasing and articulation. The intermission interviews were entertaining even if they did not quite touch the levels of near-hilarity of the ones during Die Walkure; however I did resent being forced to go back in to hear them, after being allowed only twenty minutes of a forty minute interval to have some supper. Given that eating of any kind – yes, even sweeties – is strictly forbidden during these performances, it might be thought that we could at least be allowed to eat something half way through a show which begins at 17.30 and finishes at 21.55.
Apparently someone had complained about popcorn munchers – is filmed opera really so sacrosanct? Im definitely a member of the curmudgeon tribe, but that’s going too far even for me. Did they imagine that some teenager’s chewing of a nugget of Butterkist might put Scholl off his stride during ‘Con rauco mormorio?’ I was far more worried by the fact that his gloriously eloquent, silvery depictions of the ‘ruschendi e fonti’ were not echoed by anything I could make out on stage.
Of course it’s great that the Met is bringing these events to a wider audience – weve all long suspected that they showcase the greatest singers, and the dullest productions, on the planet, so its nice to have that confirmed. Maybe next week’s Faust will change my mind.
Plaudits to the projectionist who ensured that this performance was in sync, unlike the other filmed operas Ive seen on the big screen.