Handel's great opera seria Rodelinda has reached San Francisco, following an acclaimed production in 2004 at the Met. We got David Daniels from that cast, and later in the season Kobie van Rensburg takes the role of Grimoaldo for a few performances. Otherwise, cast and production are unique to San Francisco.
It is a tremendous opera, full of brilliantly written and deeply expressive arias for all of the characters. The Met gave it a period setting; SFO, with David Alden directing and Paul Steinberg designing the sets, placed the work in the 1940s, giving it a striking, gorgeously lit film noir look. What this had to do with the King and Queen of Lombardy, I don't know, but it certainly was handsome, and the singers looked great in their 1940s suits and dresses.
Like 2002's Alcina, there were some pointless directorial conceits, such as turning the deposed King Bertarido's loyal supporter (servant?) Unulfo into a figure of laughter and Bertarido's sister Eduige into a drunk. For that matter, I didn't much like Bertarido represented as a street person, bottle in hand. All three characters have unfailing noble arias and as far as the text goes, none of them behave like boors or drunks or klutzes. Other odd directorial problems included Rodelinda and Bertarido standing 20 feet apart while singing "I embrace you" and an awful lot of unnecessary stage business during arias. At least the on-stage action was mostly understandable, unlike the incomprehensible antics of Alcina.
Also: no gratuitous sex, although there was a moment when I thought perhaps Garibaldo was going to have at Eduige on the bonnet of the Mercedes that was part of the scenery during Acts II and III. (If you want nongratuitous sex in Handel, I refer you to Semele and especially the title character's aria "Endless pleasure," which is about exactly what you think it is, or even her "With fond desiring.")
In any event, the September 25th performance of Rodelinda was spectacularly sung and conducted. Catherine Nagelstad, singing Rodelinda, got off to a weak start; throughout Act I she had difficulty maintaining a good line except while singing slowly. Her trills weren't clean and her passage work was disconnected from the underlying meter of the arias; consequently, she seemed to be meandering and without rhythmic focus. Everything changed in the second and third acts, and once again the brilliant singer of Alcina was before us in all her glory, dramatically riveting and gorgeous in line and tone. David Daniels, as Bertarido, matched her in every way; they were ravishing in the act II reunion duet, "Io t’abbraccio." The young Adler Fellow Gerald Thompson, countertenor, sang beautifully and brought considerable dignity to the role of Unulfo, despite the director's efforts to the contrary. He seems a complete artist already, and it's not hard to see a great career in front of him. Phyllis Pancella was a fine Eduige, making the most of both her drunken and dignified moments. Umberto Chiummo was a suitably evil Garibaldo. Paul Nilon, as the usurper Grimoaldo, sang lyrically but in a style that sometimes seemed from another century. Nonetheless, his passage-work, trills, and breath control were excellent. Roy Goodman conducted with spring and vigor; the orchestra did a splendid job of embracing Baroque style.
Three performances remain (Thursday, September 29; Sunday, October 2; Saturday, October 8); if you like opera seria, or, for that matter, if you like great singing, go see Rodelinda.