Baroque opera is a celebration of strangeness. The vocal qualities, instrumental ensembles, formal structures and plot devices seem soaked in the unfamiliar. Why then do so many commentators resonate with an idea expressed by Renée Fleming during one of the intermission interviews during the Live in HD presentation of Handel's opera Rodelinda? "Handel is modern," said Fleming.
Modern is the right word. This production by Stephen Wadsworth focused the existential qualities of this score and made the work seem a commentary on an afterlife where spirits were reunited because death was a misunderstanding.
"You say that I am dead," sang countertenor Andreas Scholl as Bertarido in his opening recitative. There was no one else onstage. He was singing to those who memorialized him with an engraved headstone because they believed him to have been killed in exile. The chilly tone and high pitches that Scholl produced sounded like the voice of the dead. Moments later, Bertarido heard Rodelinda mourning for him but could not reveal himself. It was as if he were dead and inhabiting an afterworld aware of, but just outside the world of the living.
Act three provides symmetrical balances. Bertarido's sister Eduige (played by Stephanie Blythe), recognizes him by hearing his disembodied voice. She follows the sound of the voice and finds him, and to her surprise he is alive.
In a wonderful and strange twist late in the third act, Rodelinda again becomes convinced that Bertarido has been killed because of bloody clothes left behind in his jail cell. Wadsworth set this scene in a jail cell that was physically underneath the tombstone monument from Act I. In an Aida-like moment, the horizon lifted as a section of the stage elevated and we could see that the jail was underground, like a crypt.
Between both images of false death is a reunion. Rodalinda sees Bertarido at the end of the second act. Is he still alive?
"I embrace you," they sing in the only duet in the opera, "stronger and harsher than death is this embrace...is this farewell that tears me from you." Wadsworth staged the duet at the site of the funeral monument. It all connected.
Handel set no indications that the dead could have been in a heavenly realm where they were freed from the struggles of living. Though there are occasional references to God in the libretto the references are exclamations of drama rather than prayer. What could be more different from the energy of Bach than this philosophical exploration? This is not Messiah.
Rodelinda explores a concept of death that remains alive and present, with us. "I marry vengeance," sang Rodelinda to Grimoaldo in the second act, "you marry death."