martes, junio 05, 2007

"Rodelinda": a major Handel event

I have no hesitation in pronouncing the production of George Frideric Handel's "Rodelinda" by Buenos Aires Lírica at the Avenida the most important event of the operatic season. It isn't saying as much as it seems, for the context gives us an astonishingly poor season as far as renovation is concerned. The Colón does works it has offered within the last fifteen years, Juventus Lyrica can only boast of a revival of Ravel's two short operas, even Adelaida Negri's Casa de la Opera (generally a source of interesting material) opts this year for well-known pieces, there's nothing new at the Roma (Avellaneda) and frankly I have little hope for a Bacalov opera which will be premiered at the Argentino (La Plata), a theatre that otherwise gives us the rankest repertoire. So the Argentine staged premiere of "Rodelinda" is a major occasion. Mind you, a condensed concert version was offered some years ago at the Salón Dorado (Colón) by that theatre's Institute of Art advanced students. And it isn't –as announced- a South American premiere, for Caracas did that under Philippe Herreweghe in 1985.

The history of Handel opera performances in Buenos Aires is shamefully short and incomplete, if you consider that he is the greatest Baroque opera composer and we have forty titles to choose from. Curiously one opera has been offered thrice: "Giulio Cesare" . Otherwise we can only mention a second Richter-conducted opera, "Serse", in 1971, also with Schreier, and then we jump to "Agrippina" in 2005 by Buenos Aires Lírica! Thirty-four years without Handel...

"Agrippina" was a vivid success; with the same conductor, Juan Manuel Quintana, we now have "Rodelinda". It is a good choice for most specialists consider it amongst the half-dozen best; for future years I certainly root for "Alcina" and "Rinaldo", splendid and fantastic, for "Tamerlano" and for a "Giulio Cesare" revival. Of course, "Rodelinda" is an "opera seria" and has the defects of the genre: with just two exceptions, it is a succession of recitatives and arias (the duet that closes the Second Act and the ensemble at the very end bring welcome relief); the arias are "da capo" ( a main section A, a short contrasting B, and an A' that merely ornaments the same music); and the dramatic construction is patchy and stereotyped. But so much of the music is marvelous that we can hardly fail to yield to its beauties. You might feel legitimately that a lot is slow and contemplative and that sometimes you yearn for more adrenaline, but there's no gainsaying the harmonic and melodic sensitivity shown by the composer, at the service of one of those convoluted stories that mix historical occurrence with the contrasting miseries and ecstasies of love. For the record, it deals with the seventh century Longobards and proceeds via two librettists (Nicola Salvi and Antonio Haym) from Pierre Corneille's play "Pertharite, Roi des Lombards", based in turn on a "Historia Longobardorum" by Paulus Diaconus. Some cuts were made especially in recitative but the opera still lasted more than three hours.

A crucial decision was taken by the BAL authorities: a production in the Baroque style without Postmodernist distortions. They brought over from France a specialist, Ivan Alexandre (debut), who tackled this Handel at face value: painted curtain drops, localized light (lanterns following the singers), exposed machinery, changes of scenery done in front of the spectator, and also some matters that made me cavil. The acceptance of certain practices of the early eighteenth century can make for a feeling of absurdity nowadays, and also made me doubt if what I was seeing was strictly historical : slow silent film gestures, precious to a fault (especially Grimoaldo's), or the men dressed in garments that included short rigid open aprons: were these true historical practice, or the particular vision of Alexandre and his clothes designer, Eduardo Lerchundi? Anyway, I disliked them. But I liked very much the beautifully conceived and executed curtain drops by stage designer Santiago Elder, of true aesthetic quality and exquisite taste.

Quintana has assisted René Jacobs and Marc Minkowski in Europe, and in recent years has been acquiring a solid workmanship as a conductor, as well as forming in Rosario an admirable Baroque orchestra. I was impressed by the continuity and natural expression he obtained from his proficient group of players , and I would only wish he had taken a little faster the numerous and extended laments.

The singers were half Chilean and half Argentine; the Chileans took the main parts and did them better than well. I particularly liked Evelyn Ramírez as Bertarido, the deposed King (she sang Nero last year in Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea"); the part was originally for a "castrato contralto", Senesino. Claudia Pereira (debut) started too coolly as Rodelinda but then found the necessary warmth as the music proceeded. Jaime Cacompai , also from last year's Monteverdi, was musically satisfactory as the usurper Grimoaldo, though I didn't enjoy his acting. Of the Argentines the best was Norberto Marcos as the villain Garibaldo, firm and clear. Gabriela Cipriani Zec was too self-effaced, soft-grained to a fault, and Vanessa Mautner seemed in bad voice, with some croaky passages initially.

But even if the cast wasn't ideal, the total effect was certainly valuable and I can only urge BAL to keep on the good road in this repertoire in years to come.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald

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