Rodelinda at Portland

In the title role, the radiant Jennifer Aylmer showed off quite a full
arsenal of technical perfection. Throughout the night Ms. Aylmer not only
poured out plangent legato phrases, trip-hammer fioritura, and unfailingly
lovely tone at all volumes and in all registers, but also displayed a solid
technique, handsome stage presence, and an admirable command of this
difficult genre. If her trills were sometimes approximated it was small
matter. Hers is a major musical presence on the current scene and happily for
us all, these days she is singing all over the map.

That said, for all her strengths, at the top of the show I thought she
lacked the weight of voice, or perhaps the seriousness of dramatic purpose
required. “Rodelinda” begins in tragedy mode, which accelerates rapidly to
righteous anger. I certainly thought the voice a wonderful instrument from
the git-go, but perhaps a half-size too small. Her first splashy coloratura
harangue, while clean and musical, seemed more “petulant soubrette” than
“royalty wronged.”

Indeed throughout Act One, I was thinking rather what a memorable
“Susanna” she would be, and then, lo, from Act Two onward, as her performance
deepened I settled into a broader appreciation of her talents for the work at
hand. Maybe she was pacing herself? Or maybe I just got over myself! In any
case, while she is not “quite” just yet Beverly or Renee or Cecilia in this
repertoire, this is a major talent with a great future. Watch for her.

Arguably, the “discovery” of this production was countertenor Gerald
Thompson as “Unulfo.” We have come a long way since pleasant rarities like
Russell Oberlin, let me tell you! Mr. Thompson has an uncommonly impressive
instrument for this Fach, full-bodied, expressive, responsive, capable of
every demand that Handel asks of it. Our singer absolutely and thrillingly
nailed every sixteenth note of the (extremely) rapid passage work with fiery
precision. Moreover, he displayed real heart in his slower parlando passages.
So accomplished was he, that I found myself wishing that he were the one
singing the incomparably lovely “Dove Sei,” one of leading man “Bertarido’s”
big set pieces. (He has sung the role elsewhere.)

Not that Jennifer Hines didn’t bring many fine qualities to her
impersonation of our hero. She is a handsome woman with good musical
instincts and a well-schooled mezzo. While her dark, almost vibrato-less
sound should have been well-suited to this male character, her production did
not seem grounded in the speaking voice, at times sounding hollow instead of
troubled, backward-placed instead of forthcoming. She had all the notes for
her final showpiece aria, but scarce brilliance of tone. Perhaps I have
become too accustomed to the luxurious bravura of Horne or Verrett or Larmore
in such trouser roles, but Ms. Hines seemed mis-cast, not in agility or
intelligence or intentions, but in vocal star presence.

The “Eduige” of Emma Curtis had plenty of spunk, and she quite
successfully married her rock solid low register to a rather rich middle and
a secure, if slightly thinner top. She managed some awesome arpeggiated licks
with thundering baritonal low notes, but her generous vibrato caused a little
grief in slower passages in the lower middle voice, when the “point” of the
pitch got muddied a bit here and there.

For the first two acts, it was difficult to make out the skill set of
tenor Robert Breault’s “Grimoaldo.” His florid singing seemed accurate
enough, if somewhat thin and scaled back, and I had the feeling he wanted to
lag behind the beat. Then, suddenly, ringing climactic high notes would
appear that rattled the chandeliers. Hmmmmmm. Looking at his credits, this is
a guy who sings “Cavaradossi” and “Don Jose” and here he was, frogging around
in melismatic Handel, for God’s sake. Then in Act Three, Mr. Breault was
totally vindicated with a memorable and moving reading of his big scena of
doubt and redemption. Amazingly fine.

In the mute role of “Flavio,” young lad Jamesmichael (sic) Sherman-Lewis
(don’t you love that name?) was adorably effective without upstaging. Bass
Verlian Ruminski was so terrific as “Garibaldo” that I dearly wished the role
were not so small. He tore up the stage with his solidly projected arias and
theatrical conviction.

And “theatrical conviction” is a point of discussion in considering Helena
Binder’s staging. It is interesting that in other times and places, producers
have occasionally sought (with considerable effort and imagination) to make
viable stage pieces out of oratorios. But here it seemed that we were looking
at a highly stage worthy opera, which was reduced on more than one occasion
to an oratorio.

Let me first say that Ms. Binder’s management of the logistics of exits
and entrances, integration of set changes, and creation of lovely tableaux
was skillfully done. And she is mistress of focusing the attention in all the
right places, striving to serve the story well. Believe you me, these are no
small skills, and we could use more directors/producers with this mind

However, to my taste there were too many instances of “stand-and-sing” or
busy movement that did not illuminate the relationships, nor develop the
character. You know, those interludes of stage “busy-ness.” You’ve seen it:
“Now I will walk right; nope, nope; I will stop as if remembering I really
wanted to go left; maybe; maaaaybe; nope, left’s not it; I’ll just stop; and.
. .oops-it’s-time-to-sing-again.”

Too, a pattern emerged of having the soloists tromp off stage at the end
of almost each and every aria, sometimes way too soon prompting applause over
the postludes, and leaving silence in the ensuing set changes which could
have been better covered by the audience reaction to the aria. I appreciate
the artistic decisions that were made and the consistency of their execution,
all the while I would yet urge Madame Director to further develop the
character relationships, delve into more specificity, and take fuller
advantage of the ripe dramatic possibilities.

John Copley’s pleasing settings were an effective modern interpretation of
Baroque theatrical conventions, like the “in-one” scene changes. The playing
space was made more intimate by a succession of receding square
proscenium-like frames which threw the action forward to the primary playing
space on a red lacquer square front and center stage.

Within this simple and elegant black and white unit, minimal furniture and
key set pieces (like “Bertarido’s” memorial) were smoothly placed and removed
by costumed servants. The colorless silhouettes of scenery flown in and out
behind the upstage frame suggested trees, prison, gravestones, etc. like
stylized and unadorned paper cut-outs. The shallow apron area had the
advantage of bringing the singers forward more often than not, but had the
disadvantage of somewhat restricting blocking to more linear moves.

The beautiful lighting design by Thomas J. Munn achieved lovely effects,
especially with back lighting and isolated areas. The uncredited lavish
costumes (Mr. Copley?) appeared to have been updated to Handel’s time, and
well, why not? They enhanced the character, and looked gorgeous to boot.

Musical matters were in secure hands with conductor George Manahan. While
modern instruments were used, there was the usual inclusion of the (winningly
played) theorbo and baroque guitar. There are trade offs in this choice.
While the ensemble was immeasurably better tuned that some “early music”
bands I have heard (ooh, was that my out-loud voice?) it also lacked the
special color that great “original instrument” players can elicit. Playing
with minimal vibrato and well-considered style, purists be damned, the
Portland pit contributed some beautiful, idiomatic support.

Ever felt like a jaded opera fan who has maybe “seen it all”? I sure did
as I watched lines of patrons parade to the orchestra pit at both
intermissions to see just what this “theorbo thing” was all about. Many had
never seen one before, and it was a total delight to be party to their
discovery. Too, it should be remarked that there were any number of young
people in attendance. The Goth Valentine’s couple in the row just behind me
seemed to be getting off on “Rodelinda” with an uncalculated enthusiasm often
lacking at such temples as Glyndebourne or Glimmerglass. Other companies with
a maturing customer base might do well to study what Portland is doing right
in audience development.

If I heard more “woo-woo-woo’s” than “bravi” at the curtain call, the net
result was the same. The Portland public seems to know and appreciate the
fact that they have a top notch producing organization, whose high standards
were always in evidence with this enjoyable “Rodelinda.”

James Sohre

image_description=Jennifer Aylmer
product_title=G. F. Handel: Rodelinda
Portland Opera
product_by=Above: Jennifer Aylmer