Nikolaus Harnoncourt is the elder statesman of the historical performance movement and one of the pillars of Vienna’s musical scene. This season, the Theater an der Wien has already hosted comparative upstart period practice specialists Christophe Rousset, René Jacobs, William Christie and Alan Curtis, so it was only fitting that Harnoncourt and his orchestra, the Concentus Musicus Wien, would also appear. Their excellent production of Handel’s Rodelinda proves that Harnoncourt is still on the top of his game.

© Werner Kmetitsch
© Werner Kmetitsch

Rodelinda was a big success on its 1725 London premiere. Its musical variety, emotional directness, and three-dimensional characters retain their appeal today, and it is one of the most popular operas in the ongoing Handel revival. The plot concerns politics in early-Medieval Italy, but director Philipp Harnoncourt (Nikolaus’s son) has updated it to a present-day cityscape. After her husband Bertarido is deposed by a rival and presumed dead, Queen Rodelinda must protect her son, restore her man to power, and test the honesty of a number of shady characters. The kings and dukes of the libretto map neatly onto the production’s sleazy modern underworld of gangsters and drug dealers. Rodelinda is a trophy mob wife, and her outcast husband hides among a group of homeless people.

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. Handel’s aria texts are often abstract, and the staging aims to illustrate their specific ramifications in the plot, with the characters acting out their exact hopes, fears, and intentions. As sidekick Garibaldo proclaims he will sleep his way to the top, he demonstrates his method by seducing the throne’s heir apparent Eduige.

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. Often there is simply too much to watch (and the messages, such as children playing with water guns in the background while adults sing about revenge, can be heavy-handed). At a few points so many people are pulling guns on one another that it is impossible to tell what is going on. Yet in a broad sense the production is successful, and the drama gripping. Those who prefer their opera beautiful will find it ugly (when Bertarido sings of springs and fountains, he is standing ankle-deep in a kiddie pool), but the serious plot and emotional depth of the characters make such a setting appropriate.

It helped that most of the cast had the charisma and acting skills to overshadow the clutter and create complex characters. Soprano and Baroque opera glamor queen Danielle De Niese was an appropriately beautiful and steadfast Rodelinda, helpless at the start and becoming braver as she learned to play the men’s game. Unfortunately, her acting was better than her singing, which turned harsh at louder volumes and was sometimes approximate in coloratura passages. She was more successful in the emphatic rhetoric of the faster arias than in the slow ones such as “Ombre, pianti, urne funeste,” where her phrasing was strewn with pop mannerisms.

The star of the show was countertenor Bejun Mehta as Bertarido, who gave a thrilling performance. Endowed with a rich sound and a considerable variety of vocal colors (particularly for a countertenor), he sang his character’s mournful music with plangent phrasing, excellent dramatic timing, and, when required, stunning virtuosity. While not as accomplished an actor as De Niese, he had presence and intensity onstage.

As usurper Grimoaldo, Kurt Streit created a a dim-witted yet somehow savvy heavy, finally afflicted with a crisis of conscience in his Act 3 “Fatto inferno,” a surprisingly powerful scene. His Mozartean tenor can be dry, but he sang with agility and energy. Swedish mezzo Malena Ernman boomed with authority in the low-lying role of Eduige, Bertarido’s sister (awkwardly in love with Grimoaldo), singing spotless coloratura even through some exceptionally complicated stage business of taking off clothes, dealing with a cleaning woman, and, at one point, scorching Rodelinda’s wedding dress with a hot iron. Countertenor Matthias Rexroth has a paler tone than Mehta, but nonetheless was excellent as the double agent Unulfo, here one of the most respectable figures in the community.

The score was given with only a few cuts. (One of them, the elimination of all except the introduction and final few bars of Rodelinda’s “Morrai, si” was quite odd.) Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus Wien, usually prone to experimentation, were in unusually conventional form--or, perhaps it should be acknowledged, their way of doing things, with period instruments and the rhythmic energy of Baroque dance, has become the convention. From the buzzy strings to throaty oboes, the sound has a rough vividness that a modern orchestra can’t match, and their technical polish is unimpeachable. In the Theater an der Wien’s small space, the 30-member orchestra sounded Wagnerian in volume, but never overpowered the singers. Vocal ornamentation in the da capo sections was tasteful and relatively restrained.

Despite some weaknesses in the staging, Baroque opera fans should not miss this production, and it should win a few new ones as well.

****1