Sunday, January 25, 2015

Pittsburgh Opera Stages Baroque Gem

 Rodelinda and her son Flavio (Resident Artist Jasmine Muhammad, Simon Nigram) receive unexpected help from Eduige (Resident Artist Laurel Semerdjian), who once vied for the throne. Photo Credit: David Bachman


Now nearly 300 years old, George Frideric Handel’s opera, "Rodelinda" got its premiere in London’s King’s Theatre on February 13, 1725. But its roots go back even deeper to the seventh century story of a Milanese king, first told in dramatic form in 1653 by French playwright, Pierre Corneille.
Highly regarded and deeply respected when Handel first presented "Rodelinda" to his London audience, the German-born composer wrote three operas (Giulio Cesare, Tamariano and Rodelinda) within a 12 month period 17 years before finishing his most famous work, "Messiah" (1742).
While Baroque opera eventually went out of favor, interest in Baroque music (written between 1600 and 1750) brought it back into the limelight about 100 years ago Eventually, "Rodelinda" got its first American production in 1931. At the moment, Pittsburgh Opera is giving the work its second local production (the first was in 1992) in  the intimate 400-seat CAPA Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh.
With a mix of treachery, intrigue, forced marriage, exemplary marital fidelity, fierce loyalty and an odd tangle of romantic attractions, the plot traces the political machinations of the royal Milanese court following the defeat of the king and the usurpation of the crown. It’s more than enough in the way of dramatic elements to fill three hours of beautiful music, with one pause for a 15-minute intermission.
The internecine story line is sung in Italian, but the English translation is projected above the stage to help the audience understand what’s going on. Another aid to comprehension is the da capo form, of the opera in which the arias are sung in three parts that compliment one another and use the same lyrics repeatedly. The first reading of the Supertitles, therefore, allows the audience to focus mainly on the stage while the remaining two sections are repeated.
 Bertarido (Resident Artist Corrie Stallings) is in exile, but believed by his family to be dead, and he comes upon his own memorial. Photo Credit: David Bachman

Of the cast of seven, six are Pittsburgh Opera resident artists. In the title role of the disconsolate queen, soprano Jasmine Muhammad has a regal beauty that’s a match for her strong, lyrical voice that makes singing Handel’s challenging yet radiant arias seem easy. Paired with Corrie Stallings in the pants role of the deposed king, Bertarido, in the opera’s first duet (sung early in Act Two after 18 previous solo arias), the duo provides one of the evening’s most ravishing musical moments. Another to watch for is the stellar closing aria sung with hair-raising flair by the ensemble.
As the usurper, Grimoaldo, tenor Adam Bonanni packs impressive vocal clout, but his accomplice and fellow bad guy, Phillip Gay, impressed me most with his powerful bass-baritone and skillful acting in the villainous role of Garibaldo.
As Eduige, the sister of the usurped king, mezzo Laurel Semerdjian is formidable as both an actor and singer and radiant in a lavish green dress created by costumer Karen Anselm. Countertenor Zachary Wood sculpts an wonderfully heroic figure in the role of the loyal follower of the true king and adds unique admirable lyrical skills to the operatic mix of voices.
In an unspoken role as the young prince, Flavio, Simon Nigam adds emotional context to the scheming in which he’s often a pawn in the political machinations, just one of the instances that highlight stage director’s Crystal Manich’s artistic hand.
Holly O’Hara does a remarkable job with an abstract minimalist set that features two broken columns center stage to reflect the aftermath of the war of dueling monarchs with some interesting background cloth touches that resemble clouds, trees and other free flowing forms that get some excellent visual enhancements from lighting designer Paul Hackenmueller.
The Baroque orchestra featuring mostly strings and woodwinds and an antique theorbo, a plucked instrument in the lute family, is augmented by musicians from Chatham Baroque, all under the baton of Michael Beattie.
In his preview of the opera for the Post-Gazette, senior editor Robert Croan, wrote "’Rodelinda’ is rarely performed, in part for the difficulty of the music, in part because the opera seria form presents numerous challenges to modern-day performers……The vocal hurdles, theatrical expertise and scholarship requirements have kept Handel’s magnificent operas on the fringes of the standard repertory. Happily, with the current generation of singers better trained in the techniques and style, they are now getting the attention and respect they deserve."
"Rodelinda" is at the CAPA Theater, 111 Ninth Street in Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. on Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 31 and 2 p.m. on Feb. 1. Phone 412-456-6666.

 Bertarido's enemies have been dispatched, and he is again enthroned as king. L-R, Grimoaldo and Eduige (Resident Artists Adam Bonanni and Laurel Semerdjian), Rodelinda and Bertarido (Resident Artists Jasmine Muhammad and Corrie Stallings), faithful servant Unulfo (Zachary Wood) and Flavio (Simon Nigram). Photo Credit: David Bachman


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