MUSIC
The Great Handel Opera revival was an on/off affair through the middle years of this century before it became an indisputable fact in our own time; and the piece that kick-started the whole process was Rodelinda, which surfaced in Germany in 1920 and was the first documented staging of any Handel opera anywhere since the composer's death in 1759. It roused a catalogue of stageworks from a long sleep; and in the following years, as the energy level of the revival rose and fell, Rodelinda periodically returned like the ghost in Hamlet, stiffening resolve with landmark productions like the Handel Opera Society's of 1959, which had Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker as the female leads.

Well, Rodelinda is back on the ramparts, still stiffening and in yet another landmark show which opened modestly but beautifully on Wednesday night at Broomhill, Kent. The conductor is Nicholas Kraemer, leading a period band from the harpsichord; the director is Jonathan Miller; and the production has a pre-history in that it was initially put together and recorded for future release on Virgin Classics some months ago. So the performances feel settled, well prepared, and given time and space to make their point by a production which is quietly self-effacing: happy just to frame the music, cleanly and intelligently.

Rodelinda is standardly cited as one of the more intelligent and coherent examples of Handelian theatre; and while I wouldn't take that too far - because, like all opera of its genre, its plot has to negotiate the endless comings and goings of the Exit Aria convention - it does sustain a genuine issue through the traffic control.

The issue is marital fidelity under duress, and Rodelinda is a character in the mould of Monteverdi's Penelope or Beethoven's Leonore whose devotion to her absent husband triumphs against mounting odds. Her chief Affekt is noble suffering. But her arias take her through a wide range of emotions and the Broomhill Rodelinda, Sophie Daneman, is commanding in them all. Maybe the voice could have more varied colouring, but it's enormously impressive. And the whole cast are a joy - right for their roles and with two especially fine young countertenors in what were originally the alto castrato parts. Daniel Taylor, as the absent husband Bertarido, is a find from Canada with a seductive, smoky smoothness; and Robin Blaze as the confidante Unulfo is someone who needs to work on his stage movement and breathing but sings with such a striking, cleanly articulated grace that he bears the promise of a major artist of the future.

Even Adrian Thompson, a loose voice with a big spread, comes through well, playing the insecure, not-quite-villain Grimoaldo for laughs. But the laughs are the one reservation I have about this otherwise superb piece of work. I called Jonathan Miller's production self-effacing and so it is, played out with serene austerity on a set that creates a sense of decaying grandeur (and perhaps unfinished restoration: a moment in time caught unawares) from bare white walls and artfully folded bedsheets. But into this broad non-interventionism Miller injects a note of wry humour - fair enough in any Handel opera, even opera seria like Rodelinda, so long as it doesn't take hold. Here, occasionally, it does; and at the end it rules the stage - neatly, cleverly, and simplifying some of the messy turnover of incident in Handel's final scene (no bad thing) but knocking the piece off-course in the process. It makes a merry curtain, but a questionable one.

Whatever the potential of Handel's opere serie to accommodate humour, they have always had the potential to provoke it unintended; and the campery of the Italian baroque which Handel fed his London audiences was, in its own time, under constant fire from down-to-earth English parodies. The most famous - after The Beggar's Opera, which contained more challenge than parody - was a musical romp called The Dragon of Wantley, written in 1737 by one J F Lampe who, like Handel, was a long-stay German visitor to Britain. And The Dragon was staged last weekend in a touring production by Opera Restor'd that opened the 1996 Deal Festival.

Deal is not a big festival. It's run by the composer David Matthews along lines that suggest the early days of Aldeburgh, and most of the performances happen in a tiny theatre off the sea-front that could almost be Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall. But The Dragon asks for neither grandeur nor formality. A slapstick pantomime designed, according to its printed preface, "to display in English the Beauty of Nonsense prevailing in the Handel operas", it has the smell of village halls about it; and the enduring appeal of the piece is the way it deflates exquisite recreations of high- flown Handelian style by coupling them to vernacular texts of pure, proletarian bathos. "Plato, Zeno, Aristotle/All were men who loved the bottle" somehow lingers in the mind, as does the noble aria: "My stays will burst with sobbing".

Of course, it wouldn't work if the music were as slapstick as the words, but Lampe was a competent composer. He knew Handel and had absorbed his style (diluted by some lighter influence from Thomas Arne); and there is evidence to suggest that Handel admired The Dragon. Presumably he saw the joke.

Opera Restor'd serves up the joke with just the right balance between deadpan musicianship and farcical staging. The conductor, Peter Holman, is a noted musicologist using his own edition of the score; and the singers ... well, they do much the same, singing with brash, no doubt period vigour, but upstaged by their costumes, which are marvels of virtuoso silliness.

Because the Proms are a BBC promotion they always feature showcase slots for the BBC orchestras, and this week it was the turn of the National Orchestra of Wales under its conductor Mark Wigglesworth. I'm never sure about this band - I always want it to be better than it is - and the programme of Wagner, Schoenberg and Brahms's 2nd Piano Concerto it played on Tuesday could have been a lot better, starting with the intonation of the wind. But the Brahms had a soloist of distinction in Stephen Hough, one of the most intriguingly cross-cultured pianists of his generation. He is British, with a perverse interest in arcane British repertory; but he studied and lives in New York, and his playing is an odd synthesis of English correctness and American cunning.

The technique is crystalline, sharply articulated; the musicianship organised, intelligent; the phrasing clear and meaningful: qualities which serve him well in the urbane pot- pourri of melody that flows through the last movement of Brahms 2. And if that were all, you could find him lightweight in the rest of the concerto, which is probably the toughest in the whole Romantic repertory. But Hough seems to keep his muscles in his mind rather than his forearm, and without overt showmanship he creates a sense of scale through the sleight of hand of proportional contrast, laced with the occasional, well placed and taken risk. This wasn't "big" Brahms, but it was grown-up, and very much worth hearing.

Comments