Handel, two cracking counter-tenors and Renée Fleming were all the excuses needed for a long-overdue trip to New York to hear Stephen Wadsworth's production of Rodelinda - the very piece which revived interest in Handel's opera following its performance in Göttingen in the 1920s. By baroque standards, the plot is a relatively unconvoluted one, since the main action - the overthrow (and presumed death) of King Bertarido - has taken place before the opera begins. Bertarido's usurper, Grimoaldo, now wishes to seize the throne by marriage to the Queen, Rodelinda. Matters are complicated, however, by the return of Bertarido.

Renée Fleming as the title character and Andreas Scholl as Bertarido in Handel's 'Rodelinda', © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Renée Fleming as the title character and Andreas Scholl as Bertarido in Handel's 'Rodelinda',
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Neither of the two experienced leading ladies in this performance sings much baroque opera, but Renée Fleming brought her star quality, poise and elegance to the title role of Rodelinda, which she first sang in the original production in 2004 and again in 2006 in a deliberate attempt to widen her repertoire. Her duet with Bertarido, 'Io t’abbraccio', was sung with grace and simplicity, and made a notable focal point within the 30 or so arias which make up this 3½-hour opera. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe similarly featured in both earlier productions and although she is not necessarily a natural first choice for Handel, she sang with gusto and commitment and was clearly well appreciated by the Met audience.

Yet the opera truly came to life with the two counter-tenors, appearing together for the first time. Much has been written about Andreas Scholl, but one aspect seldom commented upon is his remarkable ability with recitative, which featured strongly even though his voice could not resound throughout the building. In this one opera lie three of the most sublime arias in the counter-tenor repertoire, starting on Bertarido's first appearance in Act I with the famous 'Dove sei?', when facing the newly-hewn memorial stone commemorating his life (and death) and yearning for his wife. The utterly charming 'Con rauco mormorio' of Act II is set in a garden and conjures up a rural bliss; Andreas Scholl employed his smooth legato line to great effect and offered the most delicate ornamentation. In Act III his performance culminated with a storming 'Vivi tiranno!' with fast, furious coloratura and expert embellishment. As Unulfo, Iestyn Davies, making his debut at the Met, seized his opportunity with both hands and turned in a consummate performance. His seemingly relaxed, confident and accomplished singing was complemented by his acting skills where just the slightest of gestures conveyed a multitude of thoughts and deeds, even when lying on a stretcher atop a table.

Opinion in the New York press had been that both the other male singers had faded somewhat by the last act on the opening night, but by this, the third performance, they had clearly learnt to pace themselves. As Grimoaldo, Canadian Joseph Kaiser's strong tenor was at its very best in the angry and vengeful 'Tuo drudo è mio rivale' in Act II, but he was equally convincing in his later moments of guilt and despair. The bass-baritone Shenyang, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World in 2007, sang with a clear, fluent tone and must also be congratulated on his horsemanship (see below). There was a seventh cast member: the youngster Moritz Linn, who played the (silent) role of Bertarido and Rodelinda's son to perfection, in a natural and unselfconscious manner. Conductor Harry Bicket maintained real momentum throughout this lengthy opera, at the same time inducing a baroque feel from the Met's orchestra and undertaking harpsichord continuo, which was a particular highlight.

It must be admitted that the cavernous Metropolitan Opera was not overly suited to the intimacy of Handelian opera, with the result that the performance felt slightly under-powered in most respects and there were one or two rough edges - moments where the orchestra seemed somewhat disjointed from the singers; some overly busy direction; a fair bit of pointless wandering about by persons entirely unconnected with the plot. But the production setting in the 17th century (rather than as written, in the 7th) worked extremely well and the sets were a wonder to behold, particularly when the entire stage was raised to reveal Bertarido in the dungeon below - we even had a live horse on stage for a couple of minutes! Nothing, however, detracted from the conclusion that this was a beautiful and sensitive performance of one of Handel's greatest operatic masterpieces. It was well worth the trip, although I have just discovered that the performance on 3rd December will be beamed into cinemas and concert halls throughout the UK. Still, nothing like being there in the flesh...