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Beating Time with Handel at the Met

Save for a few rule-proving exceptions, operas are long.  Handel’s Rodelinda (first considered last week in this space) is not one of those exceptions.  It took just over four hours to get from the downbeat of the overture to the applause that followed the final, slender chorus (the only one in the work) in this month’s Metropolitan Opera revival of this tale of monarchic usurpation and wifely fidelity among the Medieval Lombards. The present run concludes with a matinee this Sunday; what had been planned as the final performance on March 31st has been cancelled “due to scheduling challenges caused by the pandemic,” though one can’t help but suspect that faltering ticket sales lie behind the move.

Even if the music and machinations enthrall from start to finish, it is hard ignore the fact that the elapsed time of this Rodelinda surpasses that of a baseball or football game, even outlasting the Super Bowl and the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring: Return of the King.  Those forms of entertainment allow for, indeed encourage, eating and drinking. While the masses consume popcorn and soda, beer and hotdogs, the hedge fund and Hollywood aristocrats gorge themselves on luxury box buffets—locally sourced and carbon neutral, of course. All the senses are satisfied or offended—depending on your preferences.

Not so opera, at least no longer. As the music historian and friend of the Musical Patriot, Pierpaolo Polzonetti shows in his sumptuous and always lively recent book, Feasting and Fasting in Opera, the art form was born of renaissance banqueting and long welcomed food and drink into the theater.  Nineteenth-century regimes of art veneration and decorum—none more authoritarian than that presided over by Richard Wagner—rid opera of such supposedly disrespectful distractions.  As Polzonetti recently told the BBC, four hours of opera without food is a “tragedy.”

The tragedy of the Met’s production was that the two intermissions approached the length of the opera itself.  The fasting masses (short on cash, credit, and bitcoin after shelling out for the hefty ticket prices) idle away the in-between times watching a few dozen (presumably wealthy) operagoers make it through their Met restaurant dinner and then desert.  There was no music to accompany this forlorn sight as there would have been in the high-caloric nights of yore in Venice or Naples of Handel’s day. Faint-from-hunger, the imagination began to transform the Met’s vast red-carpeted foyer encased in white marble into a giant belly, the rumble of voices and clink of cutlery become the ominous sound of digestion, the milling about, an (o)peristalic reenactment on a grand scale, a digestive entr’acte of epic(urean) (pro)portions. These foyeuristic fantasies were chased away, temporarily, by the tonic of Handel’s music.

How to effect these distensions and compressions across an evening at the Met? That is to say, how to get through the music and to the intermission with as little of the former and as much of the latter as can be stomached by the patronage?  One method is to make cuts to Handel’s music—standard operating procedure in the modern theater and in the baroque one too, where substitution, adaptation, and (less frequently) omission answered to the resources available, the whims of audiences and performers, and the intuitions of the creative team, not least the composer.

One celebrated example of this is Handel’s insertion of a show-piece aria for that deposed king, Bertarido, “Vivi, tiranno” on the revival of Rinaldo in December of 1725 within a year after that opera’s first successful string of performances at the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket.

At the Met, the part of Bertarido was taken by leading countertenor of the modern Handelian stage, Iestyn Davies, whose panache and pathos chased away throughts of all that intermissionary dithering and digesting. As in the eighteenth century, the marvels of the age’s best and most expensive voices were what drew audiences to the opera house and captivated them once there.

“Vivi, tiranno” comes in the third of the three acts after a full night of singing for our Bertarido. It is a final musical and moral test for the opera’s leading man: “You are alive, tyrant, I’ve saved you; kill me, ingrate, unleash your rage! I wished to save you only to show you that my courage is greater than my fate.”

The taunting tautology of a motto that starts the movement must be delivered with authoritative impetuosity, then the long notes swelled with heroic pride, the coloratura deployed with sovereign surety, the rightful ruler Bertarido soon to be back on top thanks to his own selfless deeds: giving himself up to the evil despot, Grimoaldo, in order to save the honor of his own wife, Rodelinda, coveted by said despot; and then saving Grimoaldo himself from assassination at the hands of his power hungry advisor Garibaldo, sung with stentorian menace by Adam Plachetka.

For Vivi, tiranno, Davies bent the knees slightly, filled his waistcoated breast with breath and took on every challenge, his efforts all the more riveting since failure lurks only a few recalcitrant vocal-cord cells away.  What he produced was not just technically immaculate but a literally breathtaking tour-de-force of virtuosity in every sense: unerring control of pitch and expression and passagework all in gloriously theatrical service of his character’s resurrected virtue.

Much of the part is high and—aside from those self-evident truths thrown into the face of the tyrant—fast and furious. The moment did not call for sprezzatura—that even haughtier Italian version of nonchalance—but for grim, glorious determination, all delivered with courage and conviction by Davies.

The aria also offers a star turn for a brave solo oboist (uncredited in the program, but possibly the Met orchestra’s Nathan Hughes, or perhaps a ringer): a mini concerto for the instrument in which it competes with and complements the vocal line. On the opening night of the revival, the oboist had a slight crack on the first brace of fast notes. Perhaps that was done on purpose, for through that suggestion of ubiquitous peril the audience was made to root for this unsung musician, who handled each new threat down in the pit as undaunted and unerring as Davies did on the stage above.

With “Vivi tiranno” Davies and his character had a come a long way and done a lot of singing since his opening number, that even more famous Handelian heartstring-plucker, “Dove sei, amato bene?” (Where are you, my beloved?) of the first act. That aria begins not with the customary instrumental introduction but with a single, long-held note, through and with which a great singer can search—vainly yet valiantly— for the meaning of life. From that moment on, the evening was Davies’s, his rightful position on the Handelian throne secure even if he had some on-stage work to do before reclaiming the position of Lombardic top-dog.

Indeed, Davies had his partisans in the half-empty Met and garnered the night’s only bouquet of roses at the curtain.

Besides cutting and pasting, the other approach to getting to the intermission more quickly is to take the tempos faster. The suave, tasteful, and detailed Harry Bicket is a Handel specialist and the go-to-guy for the Met’s offerings of these baroque masterpieces.  Back in 2004 he directed the premiere of this production with Renée Fleming in the title role. He returned to the podium for the 2011 revival, and has been called back for the present run.  Compared to Bicket’s 2011 reading (available on Met Opera on Demand) his current tempos for most of the allegros have not just inched forward, but rocketed towards the stratosphere.  Perhaps he was hungry an opening night or perhaps he wanted to get the show over before Putin pressed the button. Or maybe TikTok and kindred forces of hyper-pop darkness are taking their toll on old school, in-person platforms like opera: tldr (too long, didn’t listen) risks being translated into tldl (too long, didn’t listen). That shift may presage a return to aspects of the eighteenth-century theatrical experience where much of the evening was spent not attending to the music but to playing cards, dining, and to amorous pursuits.

The entire cast kept up admirably with Bicket’s pace, proof that the cadre of international singers capable of delivering Handel’s music at super-brisk rates of speed standard is expanding in number and accumulating ever more technical prowess.  Paul Appleby was thrilling and troubled as the usurper, Grimoaldo—a rare tenor part in a Handel opera. Early on, his bullying antics and stinging passagework demonstrated the character’s depravity and the singer’s vocal agility, range, and power. At last, in the third act, Appleby found an eerily eloquent calm in the madness of his last-ditch lust for the simple life:  this power-hungry tyrant really just wants to be a shepherd, and so he sings, “Pastorello d’un povero armento pur dorme contento.”

Sadly, some of the voices weren’t right for this music even if they managed to keep up with Bicket’s beat. Like many singers whose repertoire ranges across the operatic centuries, South African soprano Elza van den Heever in the title role sees Handel’s music as a kind of aerobic exercise useful for trimming down the nineteenth-century heft.  But her vibrato remained too wide for this workout, though thankfully the warp and waver did not disturb the poignancy of Handel’s famous duet of reunion and parting sung by Rodelinda and Bertarido at the close of the second act: ‘Io t’abbraccio” (I embrace you). Van den Heever’s voice was embraced by the intense and affecting restraint of her duet partner, Davies.

Whatever the reasons for this need for speed, the result was not one of greater excitement and interest, but rather served only to flatten out ideas and emotions. As the harmonic and melodic landscape whirred by, things began to sound the same: the tempo got faster, the music paradoxically slower, less interesting.

One tries to listen as attentively as possible to the aria train as it hurtles by, attempting valiantly to catch an exquisite turn of Handelian phrase, to relish the telling shake and artful swell, to acknowledge the grace of an improvised ornament. But gobbling up the musical fare risks serious indigestion.  Irritable and unsettled, one can’t wait for the intermission.