Evenings of Great Songs & the Stories Behind Them

Beattie gets a Handel on rousing 'Rodelinda'
By Richard Dyer

Globe Staff

Our outstanding season of major works by Handel draws to a close with the Cambridge Lieder & Opera Society's performance of "Rodelinda," a Boston premiere. The production has some problems, but the society has come closer to a coherent account of "Rodelinda" than an organization with vastly greater resources to call upon did with "Julius Caesar" a while back.

     "Rodelinda" is an opera written in an amazing year that also brought forward "Caesar" and "Tamerlano"; "Rodelinda" was written for the same virtuoso singers. Like Beethoven's "Fidelio," "Rodelinda" is a rescue opera; the plot concerns dynastic struggles and the fiery devotion of a faithful wife. The score contains one celebrated aria ("Dove sei?") and at least half a dozen to rank with Handel's greatest, including an extraordinary mad scene for the tenor. Rodelinda is a diva role that Joan Sutherland favored, but Grimoaldo must rank with Jeptha as Handel's greatest tenor part.

     The Cambridge Lieder & Opera Society is a newcomer, the creation of Susan Cooke, who serves as impresario, costume designer, co-translator and editor of the score, program annotator, and singer. Working with conductor Michael Beattie, Cooke trimmed "Rodelinda" to come in at just under three hours (with two intermissions). Subtitles made opera in English a lost cause, but this was a great noble cause. The translation makes no pretensions to literary value, but it is clear and avoids the ridiculous. Cooke's program note is informative.

     Her good judgement deserted her in only two of her capacities. The impresario was not well served by her choice of venue (not that she had much other choice at this busy time of year). First Church Congregational in Cambridge is famously hospitable to all musicians, but the acoustics are hospitable only to some kinds of music, and works that depend for their effect on clear articulation of rapid music and on details of diction are doomed. The staging area is not sufficiently raised, so sightlines become a problem. Also the impresario should not engage herself to appear in an unsuitable leading role. Bertarido, composed for the great castrato Senesino, calls for a singer with the comprehensive abilities of a Marilyn Horne or Jeffrey Gall rather than Cooke's agreeable but modest resources of voice and technique.

     The most experienced singer was D'Anna Fortunato, who has been performing and recording leading Handel roles for 25 years. This showed in distinction and authority of style, but Edwige is not a part that shows her to advantage. Her coloratura is professionally accomplished, but the role lies awkwardly across her voice, and unfortunately there is no slow aria where she could unfurl its splendor - we caught glimpses of her best tonal quality only in a few sustained high notes. Cassandra Norville, on the other hand, strutted considerable coloratura stuff in Rodelinda's showoff arias, retaining a silvery gleam even when singing so high that the staff receded to a small speck in the distance; unlike Fortunato, she does not yet know how to make a sustained legato line moving. Susan Forrester was only competent in a supporting role, but the two men were outstanding - tenor Daniel Brenna and bass Mark Risinger, both of them singing with resoundingly healthy tone, heroic virtuosity, and imaginative identification with character.

     Dan Sullivan's staging was very simple but it had two uncommon virtues: It never confused the story and no one looked ridiculous. What made the event exceptional were the superb playing of the orchestra and the conducting of Beattie, who was leading his first opera. Here the Cambridge Lieder & Opera Society went first-class. The players included Danielle Maddon (concertmaster), Mary Ruth Ray (viola), Michael Curry (cello), Roy Sansom (recording), and Peggy Pearson (oboe), with Andrew Goodridge occupying Beattie's usual spot at the harpsichord, and earning the right to. Beattie sometimes looked a little stiff, and he may be more of a reassurer than a challenger, but he is an excellent musician with a strong imaginative grasp of the character of Handel's gestures, a man who understands how Handel works, so "Rodelinda" rang true.

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