Composed in 1724-1725, during a period of great creative effervescence, Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi has long been considered one of Handel’s most accomplished operas. Today’s public’s response is usually two-pronged: on one side, an almost unconditional admiration for a score consisting of a pearly string of amazingly imaginative arias (of the three-part da capo form) and recitatives expressing a plethora of different sentiments; on the other, the reluctant acceptance of Nicola Francesco Haym’s convoluted, typically Baroque libretto, full of difficult to follow meanders and deus ex machina events.

Iestyn Davies (Bertarido), Paul Appleby (Grimoaldo) and Elza van den Heever (Rodelinda)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Having its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2004 and revived in 2006 and 2011, Stephen Wadsworth’s production resurfaced again on Friday night. One could not call the staging conventional, but a daring one it is also certainly not. Even if Wadsworth moved the action from the 7th century to the time when the opera was conceived, that did not mean that he elaborated a context that could shed any new light into the evolution of the complex characters. Nevertheless, the change allows the public to admire the quasi-period costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and décor (Thomas Lynch). 

Rodelinda at The Met
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Relying on the Met’s technical wizardry, the scenery spectacularly moved both laterally – unveiling a grey-toned room, a mahogany-rich library, a garden or a stable – and vertically – showing us the prison located underneath the garden. Wadsworth added a set of elements meant to enliven the four-hour performance. He emphasised the presence of Flavio (Brandon Chosed) – Rodelinda and Bertarido’s young son, imprisoned together with his mother. Another silent character, a gardener tending the monument erected to the presumably deceased king Bertarido, added colour. At the same time, the multitude of soldiers and servants marching around or sitting idle were many a times just a distraction and so was the unnecessary presence of a live horse. Even worse, the fight moments in the last act were unwillingly hilarious. Too many frills and furbelows tilted the balance in this production of a complex opera, asking too much from spectators having to constantly shift their attention from a wide-angle lens to a focused one.

Iestyn Davies (Bertarido) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Unulfo)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

As expected, the Met has reunited a stellar cast for this revival, each singer showing nevertheless a different degree of adaptability to the Baroque interpretative canon. As in almost every appearance, Iestyn Davies dominated the stage, beautifully characterising the deposed Bertarido’s role as husband and father. He attacked his arias with a smooth, straight and immediately attention-grabbing tone. Davies displayed great breath control, versatility and immense musicianship using long, delicate lines in his initial “Dove sei” and sharp, precise attacks in the later, wild “Vivi, tiranno!”. There are two countertenor roles in the opera and Anthony Roth Costanzo, as Bertarido’s faithful advisor Unulfo, was as remarkable, nimbly navigating the difficult interval jumps in the second act’s “Fra tempeste funeste a quest'alma”. 

Sasha Cooke (Eduige)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Debuting in the title role, soprano Elza van den Heever made good use of her powerful and bright vocal apparatus. Handel gives Rodelinda eight arias, expressing a gamut of feelings, and van den Heever, always committed, was a tad uneven, occasionally pushing her voice too much, especially in her high register. Mellower examples – such as “Ritorna, o caro e dolce mio Tesoro” – were exquisite. The opera’s sole duet, between Rodelinda and Bertarido, was also rendered with heart-wrenching candour. The most conflicted character – the usurper Grimoaldo – was stylishly portrayed by tenor Paul Appleby. His voice seemed to tire towards the evening’s end, when the character expresses his inner turmoil (“Fatto inferno e il mio petto”), but he immediately redeemed himself with a subtle “Pastorello d’un povero Armento”, innately suited to his voice. His on–off love interest, the similarly emotionally unstable Eduige, was played by the gleaming, reliable mezzo of Sasha Cooke. Last but not least, the rich-voiced bass-baritone Adam Plachetka succeeded in giving more than one dimension to the scheming villain, Garibaldo.

Brandon Chosed (Flavio), Adam Plachetka (Garibaldo) and Elza van den Heever (Rodelinda)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Associated with this production from its very beginnings, almost two decades ago, Harry Bicket conducted a reduced-sized Metropolitan Orchestra that almost sounded like a period ensemble, with vibrato kept to a minimum. In an overall elegant, clear and neat rendition, he offered great support to the singers, bringing verve to the confrontational moments and distinctiveness to the idyllic ones.

The Met’s reluctance to present other Baroque operas is easy to understand given the less-than-ideal environment, favouring huge voices, full-size choruses and large orchestral ensembles. Despite these drawbacks, the troupe should not wait for another star’s prompting – Rodelinda was initially staged as a vehicle for Renée Fleming – to produce another of the many Handelian gems. The New York public has a very slim chance to come across them otherwise.