Handel’s Rodelinda in Frankfurt

The succession of long da copo solo arias in Handel’s operas pose a dilemma for stage directors. Should they stop the action and allow the audience to concentrate on the music? Or, fearing boredom and at the risk of distracting the audience, should they allow ancillary action by other members of the cast. My own preference has always been for the first option, but Claus Guth for his production of Rodelinda in Frankfurt (already given in Madrid) went for the second with a vengeance, filling the stage with restless movements and extraneous activity. Much to my surprise, I loved it. Why?

The principal explanation is that the activity was an essential part of Guth’s brilliant conceit, seeing the fractious relationships between the characters of the opera, driven by thirst for power and sexual desire, through the eyes of Flavio, Rodelinda’s young teenage son. For him, the bewildering antics, as the emotions of the protagonists chop and change in unpredictable ways, threaten the security of his family life. He runs around, following the action. He draws caricatural sketches, projected through videos, of what is happening. He fears that alien forces, represented by ghostly figures which enter on the stage, are determining the course of events and even the joyous ending, when his parents are happily reunited, is marred by their persistent presence, with the suggestion that the trauma of the preceding deception and violence will stay with him.

And while, to take all this in, the eyes may have been diverted from the solo singers, there was no undue distraction from the music because Guth was careful to ensure that the stage movements accorded with, rather than contradicted, the pace and mood of Handel’s wonderful score. In any event, the musical dimension to the Frankfurt performance was so captivating that its primacy could not be threatened. The conductor Andrea Marcon must take principal credit for this. The fast rhythmic passages sizzled under his direction, the contemplative arias were finely spun out, and for the expression of grief and despair the chromaticism was never softened.

In the title role, Lucy Crowe with her creamy soprano wallowed in the languorous Handelian phrasing but also trilled excitingly in the bravura sections. Dramatically, she persuasively exposed the complexities of Rodelinda’s character, loyally loving and yet schemingly opportunist. The mellifluous voice of star counter tenor Andreas Scholl, as her husband Bertarido, provided much pleasure and his portrayal of the role as a bit of a wimp was convincing. The Grimoaldo, Martin Mitterrutzner, sang sturdily and offered a fully rounded characterisation of the usurping king with his contradictory ambitions and regrets and his vacillating behaviour. Katharina Magiera was his purposeful lover, her rich lower register enhancing communication of her emotions. The young Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orlinski, in the minor role of Unulfo, was a real discovery. His voice, more brilliant and penetrating than that of Scholl, met all the demands made of it and physically he was remarkably agile, even performing a cartwheel during one of his arias.

A word of praise finally for the designer Christian Schmidt. His all-white chateau, which revolved and opened out to reveal different layers and chambers, provided a perfect setting for the opera. On the one hand, its enclosed space suggested the security of Flavio’s family life, threatened by intruding people with their disruptive ambitions; on the other, its staircases, doors and windows facilitated the physicality of the dramatic activity which was the strikingly innovative feature of this production.