Saturday, February 9, 2008

Understudy Sharin Apostolou saves Portland Opera's Rodelinda

Sharin Apostolou, a soprano in the Portland Opera Studio Artist program, rescued Portland Opera from a potential opening night disaster with steely nerves and artistic chutzpah, delivering an outstanding performance in the title of role of "Rodelinda." It was a night to be remembered for Apostolou who filled in for headliner Jennifer Aylmer, who was suffering from a bronchial infection and advised by her doctors to avoid singing. Apostolou, who I heard a few weeks ago in the Oregon Symphony's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", sang with intelligence and passion. Her voice was clear, supple, and had plenty of warmth and fire when needed. Apostolou's acting was also very inspired, revealing the character of a heroine who outfoxed her enemies with cunning and a double dog dare attitude.

The cast of principals in this production were strong but uneven. As Rodelinda's husband, Bertarido, contralto Jennifer Hines did remarkably well, yet her beautiful darkened tone seemed was underpowered in the lower register. Tenor Robert Breault, aptly created the role of Grimoaldo who usurped the throne and sought the hand of Rodelinda, but his voice seemed to want to break free of the ornamentation that is required in Baroque opera. Whenever Breault got to the upper register, he let it ring out as if he were in an Verdi opera.

In the role of Garibaldo, a close friend of Grimoaldo, bass Valerian Ruminski has a big sound and a fair amount of agility to negotiate most of his passages. Apparently, contralto Emma Curtis was also subject to bronchial problems, but she recovered enough to perform as Eduige, Bertarido's sister. Yet her condition seemed to affect her lowest notes - which were sustained and powerful - but disconnected from the beautiful tone that she normally displayed.

Countertenor Gerald Thompson was superb as Unulfo, the nobleman who befriended Bertarido and helped Rodelinda to save him. Thompson whipped through some devlishly tricky arias with panache, completely winning over the audience en route.

George Manahan did an admirable job of conducting while seated at the harpsichord. Yet he could have pushed the chamber orchestra much further in expressing the music. During the escape scene in the third act, when the drama became heightened, the violins especially became louder, but they lost that crisp and darting quality that would've made the music more engaging.

Helena Binder provided a fine touch with the stage directions. The modicum of movement served to enhance the arias rather than detract from them. The lighting by Thomas Munn also was excellent.

The sumptuous costumes (harkening back to Handel's era) were exquisite, but the scenery, provided by Dallas Opera, lacked imagination. The backdrop consisted of large frames trimmed in gold, so that the characters looked as if they were walking into a painting. Inside the frames were white-on-white themes that depicted a forests and buildings like white silhouettes, but they were bland. Fortunately, the servants brought in ornate furniture that provided more texture.

Overall, the night belonged to Apostolou, a dynamic young talent who rose to the occasion and hopefully will have many opportunities to hone her artistry in the world of opera.

Additional Note: Aposolou will appear in the Portland Opera Studio Artists production of Albert Herring (March 14-30).


Anonymous said...

After reading this review and having seen Rodelinda twice, I have serious doubts that Mr. Bash has any clue whatsoever as to what constitutes the making of good Baroque opera.

James Bash said...

I am posting this comment, because I am willing to engage the reader in a discussion of Baroque opera. However, the commenter must do some explaining if he or she wants to make this kind of assertion.

Anonymous said...

Some neglected issues that deserve discussion:

The fine continuo support given during the secco recitatives and the augmentation, colour and clarity these excellent players provided in the accompanied.

The issue of cuts. The opera was cut dramatically. Were there ramifications? Did the choices illuminate, drive the story; or did they present serious continuity problems? Several of the da capo arias were sung without repeats and that certainly changed also the shape of things.

The issues of style. Modern early music practice, usually performed these days in small houses or in studio, cannot be realistically applied in a 3000 seat modern house can they? Breault’s comments especially, comparing his singing to that of Verdi, were particularly troubling since he seemed to me to be consistently basing his dramatic choices on the affect required, and his sotto voce was simply sublime. And, no mention was made either of the exciting choices he made in terms of ornamentation. He made it sound easy, the fiendishly difficult coloratura was handled well by all the singers, especially Thompson, which was aptly pointed out.

Hearing Jennifer Aylmer might shed light on how the role of Rodelinda could be sung too. Though the writers opinion is valid, without a reference, it’s a bit limited however. To devote so much of the review to the understudy may look great for the company and for the soprano, but I had to make sure I saw this again with Alymer in voice. She’s an incredible artist to say the least.

If a community is going to embrace this wonderful art form, it will take leaders who can expound about its virtues. Having seen Handel done in regional houses all over the world, I know that Portland was not privy to an informed and accurate review that might have excited them in addition to informing them. “All we like sheep” indeed.

If a company performs in houses like Keller, compromises must be made. A period instrument ensemble might have been a good choice for a much much smaller house, and if the stage were able to be configured to a Baroque machine driven set, we might have had a very different event too.

Key relationships are interesting, recits, and even the delivery of the Italian language which proved problematic for many of the singers. The super titles were not based closely on the Italian and there were laughs where none should have occurred, and visa versa.

I could go on and on, but, no one has asked me for my opinion! I know it must be difficult to write, especially when a piece a new to everyone. I hoped to see more to tell the truth. The writer certainly has informed opinions, and yet, there is still much for us all to learn about Handel. Let’s hope we get the chance to see and hear more soon!

James Bash said...

Thanks for all your comments. This opera was done at the Met, which seats over 4,000 people. I haven't seen that production, but I've heard that it was well received by all. I would've loved to have heard Jennifer Aylmer, and I understand that she is excellent.

I liked Breault's voice. It's just when he got to his highest notes, he let out all of the horses as if he were singing in another opera (like a Verdi opera). In other words, it all seemed carefully controlled and then WHAM!

Of course, most opera productions involve cuts -- for various reasons. I think that Portland Opera chose wisely in this matter.

I, too, am looking forward to hearing more Baroque opera here. Next year, Portland Opera will be doing Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto in a more intimate seeting, the Newmark Theatre, with more performers from Portland Baroque Orchestra - a top notch group. It should be a real highlight.

Anonymous said...

Lorin W.

This is an aside to the comments above regarding Breault's voice. I saw the 2/14 performance of Rodelinda, and I enjoyed all of the singers, most especially Thompson and Hines. If there was one singer with whom I found fault though, it was definitely Breault.

It wasn't the quality of his voice, which was fine. It was the fact that 4 or 5 times he dragged the tempo down during tricky melismas, which every singer except for Breault seemed to navigate admirably.

Having once sung in a small opera company, I know how devilishly tricky it can for a conductor to coordinate orchestra and singers in the unique format of opera. However in this instance it was definitely Breault who was at fault; each time it happened, Manahan adroitly adjusted the players to smooth out Breault's distracting lag in tempo. Quite frankly I could have done with less lavish ornamentation and more attention to continuity with the orchestra, but perhaps that was a phenomenon unique to the one performance I attended.

This was my first baroque opera but I certainly look forward to seeing many more.