Challenging 'Rodelinda' handled deftly by Pittsburgh Opera

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 25, 2015
Eilzabeth Bloom

"The excellent early-music trio Chatham Baroque lent authenticity to the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra, led by Michael Beattie..."

Producing Handel’s “Rodelinda” is no small feat.

The opera seria challenges vocalists to make the most elaborate trills, runs and leaps sound natural. When, in da capo arias, the opening section returns, they must breathe new life into music and words that have already been sung, decorating them with ornaments and cadenzas. The orchestra, meanwhile, must capture the style of a baroque ensemble.

Pittsburgh Opera took on these challenges Saturday night in the opening performance of “Rodelinda” at the CAPA Theater, Downtown. Each season, the company features its own resident artists in an original production at this venue. In recent years, it has alternated between new and early operas.

Although Pittsburgh Opera has produced “Rodelinda” once before, in 1992, it’s worth noting that the Metropolitan Opera in New York hadn’t offered a Handel opera until 1984 – and “Rodelinda” had to wait another two decades to be staged there.

There are benefits to rarity. For singers early in their careers, such as Pittsburgh Opera’s resident artists, Handel is a good testing ground not only for baroque music but also for bel canto opera, which demands similar vocal acrobatics. For the audience, the opportunity to hear early music anew should be embraced, especially with the prospects for vocal ornamentation in the arias. (In modern performance, the singers will have prepared those decorations in advance.)

Pittsburgh Opera collaborated with local artists for a production that, although far from perfect, was rewarding musically and otherwise.

The plot centers on a royal family in crisis: Rodelinda believes her husband, the ousted king Bertarido, is dead after he was overthrown by Grimoaldo. Grimoaldo, who previously had pledged his love to Bertarido’s sister Eduige, puts a move on Rodelinda once the ousted king seems to be out of the picture.

Assisting in the usurpation was Garibaldo, who turns the characters against each other in his own pursuit of the throne. As Bertarido seeks to reunite with his wife and son, various obstacles keep them apart.

Soprano Jasmine Muhammad, who played Rodelinda, has a powerful voice and dramatic sensibility, but she didn’t seem at home with this coloratura role. There were gorgeous moments, as in “Io t’abbraccio,” her devastating love duet with Bertarido (mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings). Elsewhere, she forced the ornaments and struggled with intonation and with maintaining fullness in high notes.

Ms. Stallings, singing the pants role originally written for a castrato, demonstrated nimble musicianship throughout, with elegant expression in the slow aria “Dove sei” and thoughtful ornamentation in “Vivi, tiranno.” In that final-act aria, which takes place just after Bertarido saves Grimoaldo’s life, Ms. Stallings’ leaping intervals taunt the unhappy tyrant: Could Grimoaldo really kill the man who had saved him? With skipping phrases, Bertarido laughs off the notion.

Tenor Adam Bonanni showcased a sweet tone and fine control as Grimoaldo (as in “Io gia t’amai”), but his character’s inner conflict didn’t come through; arguably, the usurper is the most complex character in the opera, unwilling, in one instance, to kill Rodelinda’s son Flavio (a silent role played by Simon Nigam). Mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian was a stately yet safe Eduige; both she and Mr. Bonanni could have taken more vocal risks.

As Garibaldo, bass-baritone Phillip Gay, sporting a trim mohawk, commanded the vocal and dramatic essence of the opera’s only pure-evil character. His “Di Cupido” featured agility enhanced by shady seductiveness. As Unulfo, Bertarido’s trusted friend, countertenor Zachary Wood had a smallish voice that lacked clarity.

The excellent early-music trio Chatham Baroque lent authenticity to the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra, led by Michael Beattie, whose swift tempos were welcome but occasionally left some musicians behind.

Stage director Crystal Manich created stirring visual frames in the midst of the action. As one moment, Rodelinda and Bertarido embraced each other even as they were tethered to ropes from opposite ends of the stage. Bronze lighting (with terrific design by Paul Hackenmueller) focused the audience’s attention on this poignant moment.

Windowpanes, tattered curtains and broken columns dressed the set, designed by Carnegie Mellon graduate student Holly O’Hara. It reflected the barriers the characters faced and, somehow, managed to overcome.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.