Teatro Real 2021-22 Review: Lakmé

(Credit: Ken Howard)

This is a review of the March 11th, 2022 performance, the Opening night of this production’s 3rd revival since 2004.

“Rodelinda: Regina De’Longobardi” is old, nearly 300-years old, which is advanced in age even by operatic standards. That being said, following the rise of the early music movement of the 20th century, scholars and performers alike have turned to the information we can glean from contemporary accounts of performance practice in order tohelp shape their own interpretations of historic works like “Rodelinda.” It was through this movement that the precursors to some more modern instruments like the harpsichord, baroque recorders and string instruments like the theorbo can be heard today in performances of works from the 16th and 17th centuries.

It also extended the use of ornamentation, the crowning jewel of bel canto performance practices, to vocal repertoire from before the time of Mozart that exists within the limits of the “Da Capo” aria structure (where an initial tune is sung followed by a middle section – usually in the parallel major or minor- that precedes a repeat of the music initially heard in the aria). Ornamentation is an artform inits own right. Ornamentation is only limited by the technical abilities and the imagination of the performer. It grants the vocalist the liberty to actually compose a limitless number of variations that can highlight the emotional nuances of a character, showcase their own mastery over the voice and liberate the audience from what can easily become a terribly boring series of encounters with the same music being performed twice every time an aria is sung.

In an opera like “Rodelinda” that runs for around three hours with roughly 30 (!) “da capo” arias, quality ornamentation is essential even more so today than it probably was in 1725 when “Rodelinda” first opened.

Another hallmark of the historically informed operatic performance world is the relatively recent rise in the use of the countertenor. A countertenor is a man who performs using his falsetto in order to sing within the range most today associate with the female voice.

In centuries past, it was in perfect order to castrate young boys before their bodies forced the change in range and timbre that comes with puberty. These castrated men or “castrati,” as they were called, served a large role in the musical world of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Spearheaded by the Catholic Church, the business of creating and training castrati continued up until the latter part of the 19th century. Castrati, through surgical means, were said to possess a timbre unlike the vocal categories that we have today and were prized both in the religious and operatic communities for the supposed beauty, power and prowess they exhibited in performance.

In “Rodelinda,” for example,there are two roles specifically designated to be castrati by Händel himself. A hundred years after the death of the last known castrato, it falls upon those in power to decide what should be done to fill in the unknowingly large or small gap left by the absence of castrati in the repertory written for them. This conundrum brought about the birth of the roles where mezzo sopranos and sometimes even sopranos play the role of male characters. This proved to be largely successful resulting in a number of famous interpreters and performances in everything from Mozart toRichard Strauss.

Despite this, the tradition of male only vocal ensembles lives on even today in some traditional churches. This is most notablein England in its state funded cathedral system thathas supported prominent choirs of men and boys for centuries. Outside of a well funded and structured system like the English Cathedral system, it is difficult to find countertenors of any quality since they have been alien to both vocal pedagogues, impresarios and maestros for such a long period of time. However this production features Iestyn Davies and Anthony Roth Costanza. The first from England, the latter from the United States, both countertenors. Whether countertenors are any closer to the castrati than mezzo sopranos or even contraltos( the lowest female vocal category) is something that we will probably never know but the use of countertenors in recent years has shed light on a distinctly underused and often misunderstood voice type notto mention a unexpected treat in repertoire that relies on diversity and spectacle to keep audiences enthralled.

Now period instruments, and wonderful vocalists performing fantastical feats of agility and virtuosity with a maestro educated on 18th century repertoire makes for a wonderful listening experience. But to take that performance out of its own historical context seems to be missing the point a bit. The information that historians have today points to a very different type of experience in the opera house for those who attended in centuries past.To put things into perspective, it wasn’t until Wagner, whose career had peaked nearly a century after the death of Händel, that the custom of patrons sitting silently in a dark house was established. Contemporary accounts depict an evening at the opera as one of general frivolity with little attention given to the musicians that they could not garner themselves through their own musical feats. They had to compete with food, drink, conversation and numerous other forms of entertainment from card games to prostitution. It was even common practice to close the curtains to your box and ignore the opera completely until you felt like watching it again.

With the advent of recording technology, ornamentation has often been restricted by societal expectations set by the great interpreters of the recent past whose recordings have served to popularize and reintroduce the operatic community to the early repertoire of our musical heritage. This reality is most notable in the works of composers like Rossini and Donizetti where many passages may as well be written since so many of the performances mirror those prior and where editors going back over a hundred years have even offered their own recommendations on what singers ought to do when faced with the responsibility to ornament, especially during the “cadenza,” an extended period of time offered before the end of an ornamented section that serves as a final opportunity to leave the audiences on a proverbial and often literal high note.

Navigating the world of historically informed performance can be a complicated one with many opinions about the challenges of capturing the enduring adoration of modern audiences while retaining or obtaining some semblance of what the long deceased founding fathers of opera may have hoped for in their compositions. It’s a balancing act between the erudition of musicologists, historians, maestros, directors and the performers who work with them that can lead to utter ruin if the pendulum swings too far in one direction or the other.

As such, a large portion of this review will certainly be discussing the choices made by the artistic powers that be at the Metropolitan Opera in the context of this greater academic and musical discussion.

This Friday’s performance starredElza van den Heever as the titular character.

Van den Heever is a soprano at the height of her career but faced immense challenges with this production. The role is a marathon of six arias and the famous duet “Io t’abbaccio e più che morte.” The challenge is in creating a powerful sequence of progressively impressive ornaments to match the drama of the story. It was a true test of her mastery of her entire voice.

Teatro Real 2021-22 Review: Lakmé

Van den Heever’s voice is unusually full for this repertoire – a nice change from the usually lighter sopranos who frequent Händel’s works. But “Rodelinda” is a far cry from what she sang so beautifully at the Metropolitan Opera’s “Wagnerians in Concert” web offering just under a year ago. She had a strong start and finishin Act one with the openingaria “Ho Perduto” and “Morrai si l’empia tua testa” showing a remarkable diversity of technique and dramatic prowess. Her coloratura was clean and exciting with a spontaneity that kept the atmosphere electrified. Unfortunately during “Ombra piante urne funeste,” a much slower aria just before her “Morrai…,” she experienced several intonation issues and was notably flat at the cadenza. Perhaps the drama had taken precedence over vocal technique at that moment as the spirit of our heroine was being tested. So long as the energy remained high, she delivered a beautiful performance. It was only when the dramatic intensity waned that a bit of undersinging and intonation issues crept in, most notably in the duet that ends Act two “ Io t’abbaccio e più che morte’ where Iestyn Davies dominated the exchange. Her final aria “ Mio caro bene” was a redemptive triumph.

The role of Grimoaldo was portrayed by tenor Paul Appelby. The role of Grimoaldo is particularly low for the tenor and Appelby seemed ill-equipped to navigate many of the lower passages at the speed Maestro Harry Bicket was moving them along. Rather than showcase his higher register through the use of clever ornamentation, it seemed as if he had hoped to compensate for this with an increase in dramatic intensity that manifested in violent thrashing through the melismatic phrases that define the role. He seemed so determined to see this approach through that during his Act three aria “ tra sospetti aspetti e timori” the white wig he had worn for the entire opera fell clean off his head – something I would safely assume wasn’t supposed to happen until a later scene where the character miserably disrobes.

Like every great wardrobe malfunction, he leaned into it and threw the wig offstage with as much ferocity as he could. There is something to be said for getting the music “in the body” but I think this was a bit out of hand.

The roles of Bertarido and Unulfo were portrayed by countertenors Iestyn Davies and Anthony Roth Costanzo respectively. Both are counted among the finest countertenors to grace the operatic stage today and certainly reinforced their positions with absolutely stunning, though very different, performances this friday night.

Davies possesses a voice of remarkable beauty and nuance. It is rare to find a voice so unified and balanced. His coloratura was fluid and precise, his interpretation sensitive and sophisticated. His ornamentation was conservative as far as range is concerned, but the sheer beauty of his instrument made every moment worth the listen. His interpretation of Bertarido’s Act one aria “ Dove sei?” was a stunning introduction to a character and a singer I loved to encounter again and again. He carried well over the orchestra, a common issue with countertenors, even out-singing the soprano lead in the beloved duet that ends Act two.

Roth Costanzo couldn’t have been any more different. While his timbre throughout the middle voice that Davies has unquestionably conquered is harsher and more metallic in nature, the speed and accuracy of his coloratura coupled with the complexity of his ornamentation was unmatched in the performance. Simply put, Roth Costanzo is a master of ornamentation. He used every opportunity to take advantage of all the skills he had at his disposal – impossibly soft high notes in “ Un zeffiro spiro,” furious coloratura, a chest voice that shattered the serenity of Händel’s writing and powerful highs that were sure to shock the audience.

Here was an artist in his element, ready to push the boundaries of what he could do within the confines of a 300-year old score. His boldness and passion is palpable and would have been worth the trip to the Met if it were the only thing sung all night.

The supporting roles of Eduige and Garibaldo were performed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Adam Plachentka.

The role of Eduige was originally meant to be a contralto, the lowest of female voice types, but Cooke, most definitely a mezzo-soprano and not a contralto, took on the challenge nonetheless. Her voice, like Davies, is lush and full of ease. She took what could be construed as a cautious approach to her ornamentation and sang mostly within the same range as the music that was already written, perhaps with missed opportunities to show off what may be hiding in the depths of her range. Her coloratura was agile, her delivery sincere and, for her part, she provided a great deal of class and sophistication to the stately work of “Rodelinda.”

Platchenka did a wonderful job at playing the archetypal baritone-villain. His powerful voice and commanding presence coupled with his impeccable phrasing and diction revealed his distinctly Mozartian instincts. His Act two aria “Tirannia gli diedi il regno” was a masterfully delivered machiavellian soliloquy that exposed a voice and an artists that certainly has the ability to cross over into more dramatic roles like that of Scarpia in “ Tosca” or the titular role in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

The fear that an audience will lose interest in an opera as long and old as “Rodelinda” is an understandable one but, for this production, I think the staging is nothing short of a full vote of no confidence in the ability of the score and performers to deliver a compelling performance.

The Metropolitan Opera possesses some of the most accomplished stage mechanics and set designers in the world so using them to the greatest extent possible is an attractive notion. But by creating a rolling set and revealing the supposed layout of the entire setting of the opera you make it incredibly difficult for the discerning audience to suspend their disbelief.

For example, Bertarido, the usurped king of Lombardy is“in hiding” only a few feet away from the front door to the palace in which his imprisoned family and tyrannical rival reside and mere steps away from the monument being built as his memorial by what I can only assume are supposed to be loyal subjects. To make matters worse, a large portion of the opera takes place just there, within sight of the palace, with the aforementioned servants endlessly tending the flowers around the monument while all manner of plotting, treachery and lamentation takes place.

All the while, the interior of the palace, here appearing to be a library of sorts, is dominated by what can only be called a tactile fixation on the part of the entire cast. Letters are being written then torn apart, books are being read and opened and closed and written in and thrown in nearly every scene. It seemed almost mandatory for something to be slammed on a table or tossed across the stage in order to make sure we were all awake.

For an entire aria, Anthony Roth Costanzo, who was not singing, spent several minutes as the only other person on stage reorganizing books on the upper level of the set. I could not help but wonder what was in all of these books and whether or not they would play some cleverly devised role in the plot. They did not.

In the final act, the set of the graveyard was raised to reveal Bertarido’s prison while his rival, Grimoaldo, languished above. Why Grimoaldo needed to be laying there, just above the scene, I could not make sense of. Nor could I grasp what sort of parallels the director was trying to draw by having them perform some sort of mirrored blocking in the same scene. The final heavy-handed stroke of directorial extremism came when, in the final act, a live horse came strolling through the set for no apparent reason at all! There was simply too much going on. It was distracting and raised more questions than gave answers.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is one of the finest in the world and Maestro Harry put it to great use. The period orchestra that he brought together was a wonderful change of pace from the usual textures we hear in the more popularly performed repertoire. Jory Vinikour played harpsichord with Kari Jane Docter, Daniel Swenberg and John Lenti on cello, archlute and baroque guitar respectively. The use of baroque recorders in conjunction with this continuo and fabulously sensitive string players kept the airy buoyancy of Händel that so many love. Maestro Bicket is a veteran conductor and champion of Händel’s operas. The contrast in tempi and dynamic beautifully supported the singers in what can only be called definitive timing.

He certainly put together quite the ensemble for this production of singers and musicians he knew would be able to deliver Händel’s “Rodelinda” with skill and finesse.