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International Record Review - (02//2015)
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Reviewer:  John T Hughes

Often with modern productions one asks why, regarding specific details or a whole concept. One such question is why directors often fill the stage with distracting and utterly unnecessary supernumeraries. I am thinking not of scenes in which extras are needed, as in the final part of Die Meistersinger. So far we have, I think, been spared a host of neighbours gathering around the bed of the. dying Mimi (but one never knows from the many directors who have no respect for composers). All this comes to my mind because of all the people who divert viewers' attention from the soloists in Philipp Harnoncourt's production of Rodelinda, conducted by his father at the Theater an der Wien.


'The action is updated (almost a sine qua non these days), setting it in a house with three staircases linking the ground fluor to the one above. Why so many, and how many grey columns are there? One thinks of a concrete, multi‑storey car park, so ugly are Herbert Murauer's sets. The acoustic is hollow, resulting in loud notes taking on harshness. It seems that the Theater an der Wien is acoustically unfriendly. Whatever the reason, the sound is inconsistent.


An early example of the producer's excessive use of extras is when Eduige delivers her testing aria 'Lo farò, dirò: spietato' in Act 1, excitingly sung by Malena Ernman. Not only does Garibaldo grapple with her, but a cleaner is in shot sweeping the floor. Does Harnoncourt junior expect viewers to watch her or to try to concentrate on Ernman's singing? There are worse examples later. While he sings 'Dove sei', Bertarido is alongside tramps dossing. Bejun Mehta sings the aria quietly for much of the time, but a beat is noticeable in his voice on long‑held slow notes: net evident afterwards. Even worse happens when it comes to background distractions, for while Rodelinda sings her plaint 'Ombre, pianto, urne funeste', one of Garibaldo's thugs tries, for some unknown reason, to separate a young couple, which the viewer.cannot but notice even though it is the singer who should be the focal point. What was in the producer's mind when he decided on this piece of nonsense? It is there for no purpose other than to be there, or so it scems. Someone should explain to all producers that an audience is capable of watching the singer during an aria. I must admit that halfway through Act 1 I was finding it difficult to concentrate on the musical side, for virtually every aria suffers from distractions. I had to try harder, for Harnoncourt senior's conducting is far better than his son's producing, which would have been so much more acceptable without the hangers‑on.


Obviously, in an opera the singing is far more important than the production and I apologize for spending so much time on the latter, but it has really annoyed me. (Duos it show?) As I have mentioned Mehta as Bertarido, let me say more. His coloratura singing, ‑as he has often demonstrated, is most accomplished, with a cleanliness of articulation in the more decorative and demanding of passages. A clear example of this is provided in the closing aria of Act 1, 'Confusa si mira', in which his singing is at its most fluent. (The distraction during this comes from a woman, apparently Unulfo's wife, who is struggling with two fractious children. Oh how necessary that is, isn't it?) Mehta takes the slow aria 'Con rauco mormorio' with sensitivity, but the acoustic does bring a hard glaze to his tone.


His fellow countertenor Matthias Rexroth has a voice of softer hue, also supple but which on an occasional low note does not come out clearly. He nevertheless is heard well in 'Fra tempeste' in Act 2 and in the gentler 'Un zeffiro, spirò' at the start of the third act. His timbre is less dark than that of Ernman, who does possess a strong bottem register, which she uses in spades in 'Quanto più fierai, leaping from one end of her range to the other, in both directions. Like the rest,' she lacks nothing in Handel's roulades and vocal flourishes, a good example being the opening aria in Act 2, 'De' miei scherni', though the recording does not catch her early notes well.


I have never heard Kurt Streit sound harshly glaring at Covent Garden or in the Wigmore Hall, but here the acoustic distorts his timbre. It is at its worst as he rushes here and there dementedly in 'Tra sospetti, affetti e timori' in Act 3. If only he, like his fellows, had been allowed simply to stand and sing. One can hear that he is actually doing well whatever the tempo, whatever the context. His hushed singing in 'Pastorello d'un povero momento' is delightful. Grimoaldo's henchman Garibaldo benefits from the firm bass‑baritone of Konstantin Wolff, who is less affected hy the recorded sound than are some of his colleagues and bestows evil openhandedly.


Finally, Danielle de Niese, experiencing no difficulty as Rodelinda, uninhibitedly communicates her feelings in the bravura aria 'Spietati, in, un giurai', expressing anger in powerful coloratura and full‑bodied sound, while Rodelinda's son Flavio seizes a gun (the modern producer's favourite instrument) and points it at everybody, including his mother! The vocally reverse side of de Niese is presented as she partners Mehta so musically in the intimate duet 'Io t'abbraccio' (so intimate that there are only ten or eleven people listening to them!). I should say how vividly Mehta dispatches the brilliant 'Vivi, tiranno' with his virtuosic technique and splendid embellishments in the da capo.


What would have been better than this DVD would have been for the cast to have come together in an acoustically focused studio to record a CD set, for the singing and playing deserve to be heard without all the distractions. Add that the film director spends far too much time depicting them. There is nothing wrong with stillness while somebody is singing, an approach which many producers today seem not to understand. In spite of some very creditable performances on the musical side, the wrong‑headed production precIudes a recommendation, unless one likes cluttered and overcrowded presentations, somewhat poor video direction, ugly sets and variable sound.



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