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I was watching one of the little introductory sections that the Met includes in these DVDs (the host in this case was Deborah Voigt) and Voigt and the conductor, Harry Bicket, were discussing the history of the performance of Handel’s operas at the Met.
The idea seemed to be that until relatively recently, operas like Rodelinda were considered too “intimate” for a big house like the Met’s. However – this was the drift of their conversation – things have changed, and there are singers who can bring the required dramatic force to the succession of recitatives and da capo arias that make up Handel’s operas.
Whether this is true or not is an open question, but the word that caught my attention in their conversation was “intimate.” It struck me as a weird word to use about Handel’s operas, and I had to stop and think why they were using it. When I think of music that could be categorized this way, what comes to mind are things like Lieder or violin sonatas. Pieces performed by a few people rather than a large group – things that might be performed in someone’s living room for an audience of four.
I think that what Voigt and Bicket were getting at, though, was that these are operas that turn on shifts in relations among a small group of people. In Rodelinda there is no deux ex machina and there are no big crowd scenes. Although the characters may bemoan their individual situations, Fate with a capital F is not what is driving this. And musically, you can perform this opera with a relatively small cast and a smallish orchestra. The opera can do what it needs to do at the Met, or it can do it in a much smaller house and with a set that doesn’t slide around and it can even do it without the horse. (This opera is in fact usually performed without a horse.)
Voigt and Bicket’s point was that you can have intimacy in that sense in a hall that holds something like 4000 people. And you can. But I’m not sure that “intimate” is the word I’d use to describe this particular production. As noted, the set is very pretty. (One minor gripe about the camera work on these DVDs of Met live HD broadcasts. You hardly ever see the orchestra or the conductor. It’s like they want you to forget it’s a theatrical production, and make it look like a movie. I want to see the orchestra now and then!) And the space is not set up to make the stage look bigger (e.g. as they did recently in Les Troyens). It’s carved into smaller, closely connected spaces, mostly rooms and a not-too-spacious courtyard. (With a stable. On the subject of the stable, and the unveiling of the disguised Bertarido in Act II. Bertarido is in the stable, musing to himself and Eduige hears him, and realizes that it is her brother. I understand why Bertarido is in the stable. He’s hiding out. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why Eduige is in the stable. Possibly this has something to do with the presence of the horse, but I am not nearly subtle enough to pin down the connection.) The whole vibe is definitely not intended to be massive or epic or sweeping. It’s supposed be literally domestic. So in that sense, I guess we’ve got intimacy.
But the thing about that term is that it implies that the characters are locked together dramatically as well as musically all the time, and you can feel the shifting tensions of the relationships alongside (or within) the shifts and movements in the music. (Oddly enough, in Handel’s operas the characters’ vocal lines are not often overlapping: maybe this is – paradoxically – why they’re said to require “intimacy” in terms of hall size: you need the smaller space and/or intense acting to create the connectedness that the baroque opera style doesn’t beat you over the head with musically? Maybe, although I certainly never feel that Handel’s music lacks depth or fails to indicate relationships simply because there are so few ensembles. Eh, never mind.)
In this tight-interconnection-of-characters sense of intimacy, this performance of Rodelinda has its moments. A few of them, anyway.
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