Tue. Jul 5th, 2022

Handel’s Agrippina was such a hit at the Metropolitan Opera immediately before the New York company was shuttered for the coronavirus two years ago that a prompt return to the composer was only fitting. Happily, a revival of its 2004 production of Rodelinda brings just that.

An opera high on the list of works favored by Handel aficionados, it has also fared well with Met audiences, and rightly so. Like Beethoven’s Fidelioit celebrates marriage, as Bertarido, the wrongly ousted king of Lombardy, seeks to regain the throne and, more important to him, the company of his wife, Rodelinda, and their child.

Stephen Wadsworth’s production, along with Thomas Lynch’s decor and lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, dazzles the audience with old-fashioned opulence. It’s as if to prove that a Handel opera can equal the scenic grandeur of anything from the 19th century. After opening in Rodelinda’s bedroom, the sets depicting Milan and its environs seem almost limitless as they slide in, an elaborate two-level private library emerging as perhaps the most sumptuous. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes discreetly update the action to the time of the composer.

Wadsworth’s direction of the principals brings out the poignancy of the drama, not least during musical numbers of stark expressive power. He keeps the stage busy by involving a host of extras in minor tasks, such as delivering mail or a sack of grain – the production includes a live horse – or simply walking across the stage.

The heroine, previously the domain of Renée Fleming, is now taken by Elza van den Heever, whose singing gleams and responds to the music’s interpretative demands, though it would be enhanced by greater vocal warmth. As Bertarido, a role written for the castrato Senesino, the countertenor Iestyn Davies sings with polish and handsome, though not heroic, tone. Bertarido’s rival, Grimoaldo, is a malefactor with a conscience, and the tenor Paul Appleby repays the Met’s confidence in him over the years with an arresting portrayal of this conflicted figure. Also fine are Sasha Cooke as Bertarido’s sister Eduige and the popular countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as his friend Unulfo.

Harry Bicket, the production’s original conductor, again leads a stylish, well-judged performance, apart from some overly aggressive playing by plucked continuo instruments. The performance offers further proof that Handel operas are by no means too small-scaled for the vastness of the Met.

★★★★ ☆

To March 27, metopera.org

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