I have to preface this post by telling you that on my way to the performance I was ticketed for jaywalking.
I was running a little bit late and was about three blocks from the theater; there were no cars coming -- indeed, I would have been in as much danger of being run over had I been on the moon -- but just at that instant a cop came out of the Starbucks on the corner and stopped me. "You know it's illegal to cross against the light?" she asked. "Umm...yeah, I guess," I said, lamely. "You guess?" she replied, tartly. "ID, please." Then she wrote me up.
Ninety-seven dollars for NOTHING. Now I know how Mitt Romney's donor feels.
* * * * * *
I hesitate to write this review because I'm sure now that my mother, who has tickets for the final performance, will decide not to go. Which is probably okay; no one really needs to be subjected to Portland Opera's monumentally ill-advised production of Handel's Rodelinda. Like Attorney General Mukasey, I am unable to say whether this qualifies as torture or not, but it certainly was an ordeal. I give up! I'll tell you where the bomb is: on stage.
I also once promised myself that I would never write awful things about a singer's performance unless they really deserved it; so I will only use the names of the two singers who were absolutely wonderful. Otherwise I will refer to the performers by the names of the characters.
Baroque opera is for connoisseurs; you might think of Handel like sushi. Good sushi is amazing; mediocre sushi is distressing. Tonight was a frozen fish stick.
Thanks to Officer Krupkette, I would have been late had it not been for the cancellation of the evening's star attraction, soprano Jennifer Aylmer in the title role. When I got to my seat at 7:35, General Director Christopher Mattaliano was still making the announcement; I didn't even get to hear why Ms. Aylmer had bowed out, only that she was being replaced by Sharin Apostolou, who made favorable impressions earlier this season in smaller roles in Carmen and La Cenerentola.
She had a total triumph. Though certain passages -- a few high notes and the cadenzas [would it be pretentious to write cadenze?] -- would have benefited from the confidence that would have come from, oh, being able to rehearse, overall it was an astonishing accomplishment. How many arias did she sing? I lost count. 5? 6? 7? If she made any mistakes, I didn't hear them. You can't fake Handel; especially the recitatives. She nailed it.
Alas, rehearsal couldn't have helped most of her colleagues. The singing was ghastly. Every time Apostolou came back on stage it was just so refreshing to hear a voice that didn't have something wrong with it.
Because I was late, I didn't get a chance to look at the program and go over the cast until the lights went up for the first intermission, at which point, due to the hooty hollowness of the singer protraying Bertarido, I was apalled to discover that it was not a countertenor. She sang like she'd had her vocal cords for lunch, an incredibly manufactured, over-darkened sound with utterly unintelligible diction. Because her voice had no ping or sparkle or color, the spectacular aria "Vivi, tiranno" was anti-climactic.
Tenor Grimoaldo displayed some impressive sustained high notes, but...why? Everything else was a mess. The voice is so poorly supported that the coloratura is slushy and the tonality in the passaggio completely leaves the reservation. Though Handelian recitatives need to be sung with passion, they still need to be sung. Sprechstimme is a 20th century idea. Shouting is not the same as acting. He almost redeemed himself with some sensitive tones in the last aria, but it was marred by so much affectation. If he'd just SUNG it it would have been a million times better.
When bass Garibaldo had his first few bars of recitative I thought, "Aha! here's a voice." It was resonant and full and deep and beautiful and clear. But then it all fell apart. Mostly I think he was just miscast and the high tessitura of the arias didn't suit him, but ultimately he was undone by the fact that he doesn't know how to breathe. The passaggio was flat and he ha-ha'd his coloratura so hard he was literally having spasms on stage. His top is so tight that his big voice becomes almost inaudible. Mercifully they cut the "B" and da capo portions of his "Di Cupido impiego i vanni," but we had to endure all of "Tirannia gli diede il regno," where again it was as if shouting was supposed to count as acting. Did I mention he couldn't breathe? He ended the aria, "Cruuuuu- [gasp] -delta!" He also went authentic on us and opted for baroque pitch for the final note. Too bad the orchestra didn't go with him.
Contralto Eduige, though young, sounded like a dramatic mezzo who was ready to be put out to Klytaemnestra pasture. Her chest voice, seemingly bottomless, had nothing to do with her upper register; they were utterly distinct sounds, both of them unfocused and ugly. She seems to think that if she distorts her voice into a grating caterwaul she gets points for interpretation.
So, thank God for countertenor Gerald Thompson as Unulfo. His arias got the biggest ovations of the evening. He sang with great ease and was musical and stylish and positively radiated joy to be up there. Everybody else (except Apostolou) looked like they were trying to give themselves hernias with their effortful bluster, and he sang circles around them.
Handel operas are hard to stage; this plot is particularly idiotic, and it doesn't help when the synopsis in the program contains gibberish like, "Against her wishes, Bertarido declares himself outraged by this reveals his identity to save his insult to his wife's honor." Huh?
A successful Handel production requires ravishing singing; a brilliant production requires a genius director, but I'm not sure God Himself could do anything with some of the appallingly lame "twists" this show throws at you. A nice set helps; I realize that Portland Opera has limited funds, but a designer's job is to make it look like this was exactly the set s/he'd always had in mind, rather than basically putting a disclaimer on the stage that says, "Sorry, we still have to pay for Aida in March." Minimalism works great for Handel, but the difference between "cheap" and "minimal" is "talent."
I can't believe I stayed for the whole thing.
* * * * * *
So my court date for the jaywalking ticket is March 7. The time marked on the ticket is 7:22 p.m., and I have my ticket stub for the opera starting at 7:30. I was in a hurry! I mean, I make no claim that I didn't break the law, I just think NINETY-SEVEN DOLLARS is insane. Should I try to challenge it?